Seventh Circuit affirms SIU’s termination of doctoral student with PTSD

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Feb 12, 2015

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Southern Illinois University student had not been wrongfully terminated from the school’s doctoral program due to his post-traumatic stress disorder

Judge Kenneth F. Ripple delivered the Feb. 10 opinion affirming the judgment entered by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.

Plaintiff Patrick Novak had appealed a decision out of the district court granting summary judgment for the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University. The lower court determined that Novak failed to prove disability discrimination and failed to present sufficient evidence showing his termination was a pretext for discrimination.

Novak was diagnosed with PTSD in 2001. That same year, he enrolled as an undergraduate student at the university. Throughout his undergraduate studies, Novak requested accommodations for his PTSD, which were provided by the office of Disability Support Services.

Then in 2005, Dr. Lynn Smith recommended Novak for admission into the university’s doctoral program in Curriculum and Instruction. He was later accepted into the program and was required to pass a preliminary examination in order to continue as a candidate of the program.

The examination consisted of three segments, each of which covered a different aspect of preparation and study.

Novak passed the first portion of the exam in September 2008 after receiving extra time to complete the test.

However, he had to take the second portion of the exam twice before passing it in fall 2009. Because of his PTSD, he was given the opportunity to review his previous failing exam results, an explanation of why his responses were insufficient, extra time to complete the second exam, the opportunity to meet with an instructor to prepare for retaking the exams and an opportunity to retake the exams.

As for the third portion of the exam, Novak retook the test four separate times with the same accommodations as before but never passed. Smith, Dr. Marla Mallette and Dr. Sharon Shrock concluded that the content of his answers were insufficient in each of the tests.

Because the three professors did not give the same reasons for failing Novak, they met privately to discuss his performance and as a group with the plaintiff to review with him their reasons for his failure.

The department terminated his participation in the program in spring 2011, but offered to convert his doctoral credits into a master’s degree. However, if he accepted the offer, his credits would no longer be available to apply towards a doctoral degree. Novak accepted.

He then filed a lawsuit against the university, its College of Education, and his professors in January 2012 alleging he was terminated from the program based on his PTSD, in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion to exclude Novak’s experts and later granted summary judgment in the case. Novak appealed.

Regarding Novak’s experts, Dr. Kevin Wise and Dr. Jerry Becker, the appeals court noted that his December 2013 disclosure did not include the required information and was more than one year after the court’s deadline.

“The disclosures were so late that defendants had no opportunity to depose Wise or Becker, to challenge the admission of their testimony,” Ripple wrote in the opinion.

The appeals court concluded that Novak’s untimeliness and insufficient information would have placed the university in a difficult position to properly prepare the case.

“The University had the right to depose the experts and to seek out rebuttal experts, a task that would have been impossible within the time constraints set by the district court,” Ripple wrote. “That court therefore acted well within its discretion in refusing to accept Mr. Novak’s untimely and incomplete submission.”

As for the defendants’ summary judgment, the appeals court concluded that Novak’s evidence was insufficient to support that he was discriminated against because of his PTSD.

“At the very most, this evidence, if believed by a trier of fact, would show that there were lapses in the professors’ assessment methodology that might have resulted in unfairness to Mr. Novak,” Ripple wrote. “Any inference of discriminatory intent would be unreasonable in light of the undisputed evidence that the University repeatedly had accommodated his PTSD, and, as the district court put it, had ‘bent over backward[s] to give him opportunities and assistance beyond those required by department policy’ in an effort to help him pass his preliminary examination.”

The appeals court concluded that the defendants gave a “simple, direct” reason why Novak was terminated from the doctoral program; and in order to show that their reason is pretextual, Novak must “demonstrate that this reason constitutes a mistruth – a lie on the part of the defendants.”

Novak did not meet his burden, the court ruled. The appeals court held there was no evidence that the defendants’ evaluation of Novak’s potential for the program was anything other than honest and professional.

“Indeed, the record here shows that the defendants afforded Novak many accommodations to ensure that his disability did not interfere with his having a fair opportunity to meet the University’s standards for this particular program,” Ripple wrote. “On this basis, the district court correctly determined that the University’s motion for summary judgment should be granted.”

Judges Richard A. Posner and Michael S. Kanne concurred.

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