Where a student dismissed from the East Carolina University School of Social Work’s Master’s Degree program sued the university alleging that its decision discriminated against her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, the university was granted summary judgment. The record showed a lack of professionalism that disqualified her from participation in the program, and that she was not dismissed because of her disability.
After East Carolina University, or ECU, dismissed Olivia Neal from its School of Social Work’s Master’s Degree program, Neal sued the university alleging that its decision discriminated against her in violation of the ADA. The district court granted summary judgment to ECU.
To state a prima facie case of ADA discrimination in the context of a university’s academic programs, a “plaintiff must establish that (1) [s]he has a disability, (2) [s]he is otherwise qualified to participate in the defendant’s program, and (3) [s]he was excluded from the program on the basis of h[er] disability.” Here, the district court concluded that Neal failed to come forward with evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact on elements two and three.
The policies governing Neal’s enrollment in the MSW program plainly and clearly cautioned that a lack of professionalism could be a basis for dismissal from the program. Neal’s argument that she met this professionalism standard because she maintained a high grade point average and had never been cited for unprofessional conduct in her field work is unpersuasive. But those are not the sole measures of “professionalism,” which also appropriately consider matters such as conduct toward faculty and peers, timely communications, class and meeting attendance and the like.
Universities—not courts— are best equipped to determine what weight to give the many factors comprising the totality of a student’s academic record and performance in an academic program and how that totality measures up against a program’s requirements. Absent evidence of a discriminatory motive in assessing the numerous factors ECU was entitled to rely on to determine a student’s qualifications to remain enrolled in one of its programs, this court has no cause to accept Neal’s invitation to reweigh those factors or second-guess ECU’s determination that Neal failed to satisfy them.
Neal asserts that a dispute in the record exists as to the factual accuracy of whether she missed classes and field supervision for unexcused reasons. She claims that this discrepancy matters because it served as one factor supporting her dismissal. The court disagrees. The undisputed record shows a pattern of missed coursework throughout Neal’s time in the MSW program such that ECU could rely on that evidence as one basis for its decision.
Even more problematic for Neal, however, is that this was just one of many factors that (1) ECU cited at the time of her dismissal and (2) the district court pointed to as a basis for concluding that she failed to demonstrate she was “otherwise qualified” to remain in the MSW program. Thus, even if Neal had been able to cast doubt on whether her absences from class and supervisory meetings would have warranted dismissal, that would not alter the outcome here given the totality of the undisputed record.
Neal asserts that the record contains sufficient evidence from which a jury could find that ECU dismissed her from the MSW program because of her disability. She points to emails between MSW program faculty and administration in February 2015 discussing their perceptions of her mental state and her performance in the program. The court again disagrees. Viewed in the light most favorable to Neal, the emails depict a faculty concerned for Neal’s well-being, sensitive to when and how they could address an adult graduate student’s personal matters and fearful that her conduct and interactions with them beginning from February 10-24 would affect her successful performance going forward in the semester.
That the same individuals who were party to the February 2015 emails did not act to dismiss her until after further concerning academic conduct occurred bolsters the conclusion that no causal link can be shown between Neal’s disability and her dismissal. Further breaking the link between Neal’s dismissal and any discriminatory motive is the review panel’s independent evaluation of Neal’s record and its recommendation to uphold her dismissal while not holding Neal accountable for her conduct during her hospitalization.
Neal v. East Carolina University, Case No. 20-2153, Nov. 4, 2022. 4th Cir. (Agee), from EDNC at Raleigh (Britt). Glenn A. Barfield for Appellant. Vanessa N. Totten for Appellee. VLW 022-2-237. 40 pp.