With the Beginning of a New Academic Year, Colleges Must Be Mindful of Students’ Needs for Reasonable Accommodations
In a decision issued on August 20, 2018, the Northern District of New York determined that a student’s complaint sufficiently alleged facts demonstrating (at this early stage in the litigation) that Skidmore College failed to provide her with reasonable accommodations under Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and denied Skidmore College’s motion for judgment on the pleadings as a result. In Doe v. Skidmore College, 2018 US Dist. Lexis 140561, a student with depression and ADHD sought eight accommodations from her college in order to pass her classes. The student alleges Skidmore had agreed to all of her requested accommodations, yet Skidmore claims to have only agreed to four of the accommodations and to have contested the other four, which involved communicating with the student’s parents about missed deadlines and grades.
According to the allegations contained in the student’s complaint, she failed a class after missing a number of deadlines for submitting a paper. Contrary to the allegedly agreed-upon accommodations, neither the student’s parents nor her advisors were notified of the missed deadlines. The student claimed that if Skidmore had accommodated her as had been agreed, her parents or advisors could have intervened and ensured that she met the paper’s deadline.
In the context of higher education, courts in the Second Circuit generally provide “great deference” to colleges and universities in making judgments about genuinely academic decisions, including whether an accommodation is unreasonable. A college or university may deny an accommodation if, after assessing available options, it determines the accommodation would “fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program, or activity” and would impose an “undue hardship” on the program’s operation. In this case, Skidmore argued that, even if accepting the student’s allegations as true for the purposes of the motion, Skidmore was justified in denying some of the requested accommodations because the college has a strong interest in ensuring its graduates are “sufficiently independent such that they become ‘responsible and productive citizens in society.’” The court determined that the college’s interest in student independence must be balanced against the student’s depression and ADHD as they relate to her ability to independently manage her studies. Because the student’s disabilities could affect her ability to manage deadlines, the court concluded that, based on the allegations contained in the complaint, the requested accommodations were not unreasonable or unduly burdensome.
In concluding the student’s complaint was sufficient to proceed with the litigation, the court reasoned that requiring professors to communicate with students’ parents does not change Skidmore’s interest in ensuring its students maintain certain academic standards. This is especially true because the accommodations did not alter the grading or graduation standard to which the student would be held.
The student also alleged that Skidmore failed to engage in the interactive process because it agreed to provide accommodations but then failed to implement them without any notice or communication. Although the Second Circuit has not yet determined whether the duty to engage in the interactive process applies in the educational context, the court assumed such a duty for purposes of this case. Accepting the student’s allegations as true for purposes of this motion, the court determined that the student sufficiently alleged facts demonstrating that Skidmore failed to engage in the interactive process when it failed to advise her that it had changed its plans.
Following this decision, colleges and universities must be careful when approached with requests for reasonable accommodations. They should fully analyze the possible effects of implementing or denying the accommodation on their academic programs and, more importantly, on the student’s ability to partake in those programs. Above all, colleges and universities must communicate with the student requesting an accommodation. If the requested accommodation will not work, they must speak with the student and try to find a different solution that works for the student without jeopardizing the integrity of the institution’s “service, program, or activity.”
If you have questions regarding the information presented in this alert, please contact Cassandra Santoro, associate, at firstname.lastname@example.org or another member of the firm’s Higher Education Practice Area.