Students Suffering from Depression May Be Entitled to Reasonable Accommodation for Their Disability
Apr 19, 2022 | Written by: Share|
As we emerge from a global pandemic that prompted unprecedented levels of social isolation, stories about young people suffering from anxiety and clinical depression abound. It is not uncommon to hear about students who struggle to fulfill their academic responsibilities and cope with day-to-day life because of deep and lasting depression. With rising numbers of young people facing such challenges, it is important to know that schools may be required to provide reasonable accommodations to help such students manage their academic responsibilities. A recent case decided by New Jersey’s Appellate Division, M.M. v. Stockton Univ., 2022 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 293 (App. Div. February 25, 2022), describes how such a situation can happen to a college student.
Student Misses Classes and Assignments Due to Depression – Asks Professors for Help
The court’s opinion describes the following facts. “M.M”, a fourth year Stockton University student, claimed he was unable to leave his apartment, missed assignments, and skipped classes due to his depression. M.M. told three of his professors about his troubles and asked for their help in preventing him from failing out of school. While two professors offered him additional time to complete his coursework, a third refused. That professor told M. M. that the nature of his class was such that he could not make up for missed work and even suggested that M.M. withdraw from the class. As withdrawing from a class penalizes the student with a failing grade, and the deadline to withdraw without penalty had already passed, the professor suggested that M.M. apply for a medical withdrawal. However, when M.M. attempted to do so, the university denied his request and the professor gave him a failing grade.
Student Sues University Claiming Disability Discrimination – Court Dismisses Case
M.M. filed suit against the university, claiming that its failure to accommodate his depression violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et. seq. The university succeeded in having the case thrown out, convincing the court that M.M. “required a medical expert to prove he had a disability and to establish his depression was so severe that he was disabled.” Id. at *2. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that M.M. presented sufficient evidence of his disability at the pre-trial stage, and that he was entitled to a trial on his disability discrimination claim.
In explaining its decision, the Appellate Court described M.M.’s struggles at the university. According to M.M., he experienced a “breakdown” one night when he was out with his friends, and later sought counseling at the university’s Wellness Center. The therapist diagnosed M.M. with “major depressive disorder.” In doing so, the therapist observed that M.M. had difficulty sleeping, difficulty attending class, and missed required assignments. The therapist further reported that M.M. presented with symptoms of anxiety and depression throughout their treatment sessions. As a “suggested accommodation,” the therapist recommended that the university grant M.M. additional time to take his exams and complete his coursework when experiencing depressive symptoms.
Appellate Division Finds Student Presented Sufficient Facts to Prove His Depression Was a Protected Disability
In reversing the trial court’s dismissal of the case, the Appellate Division explained what an aggrieved student must show to establish a claim of failure to accommodate a disability. The student must demonstrate that he or she (1) has a disability; (2) was otherwise qualified to participate in the program at issue; and (3) was denied the benefits of the program because of his or her disability. Id. at *11-12 (citing J.T. v. Dumont Pub. Sch., 438 N.J. Super. 241, 263 (App. Div. 2014)). Once those factors are established, the issue becomes whether the requested accommodation was “reasonable”. Id. at *12 (citations omitted). Notably, a school facing such a claim may argue as an affirmative defense that a requested accommodation creates an “undue burden” and, for that reason, cannot be granted. Id. (citing Hall v. Saint Joseph’s Hosp., 343 N.J. Super. 88, 18-09 (App. Div. 2001)).
The Appellate Division found that M.M.’s explanation of his depression was sufficient, and that he did not require expert testimony to prove his disability at the pre-trial summary judgment stage. The court explained:
“Plaintiff testified he was depressed and he described the effect the condition had on him including an inability to get out of bed, leave his apartment, attend class, complete coursework, and participate in any of his usual activities. He also described having suicidal thoughts. He sought help from the University’s Wellness Center where he was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and attended counseling sessions until the semester ended. He also saw his family physician who diagnosed him with major depressive disorder.” Id. at *12.
The court further found that the university’s Coordinator of Services for Students with Disabilities certified on an accommodation form that the student adequately authenticated his disability based on the information he provided. M.M. also identified two experts, a university counselor and his own personal physician, who could testify about his disorder at trial. The university could certainly cross-examine these witnesses about the nature of M.M.’s depression, and its impact on his ability to complete his coursework.
This case has been reinstated, and ultimately, it will be up to a jury to decide whether it was reasonable for the university to deny M.M. his requested accommodation.
Students struggling to meet their course requirements due to depression and anxiety may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation from the schools they attend. Such an accommodation can take many forms, such as an extension of time to complete an assignment, additional time to take an exam, or the ability to postpone a class without academic penalty.
If you have questions about a student’s right to be free from discrimination based on a mental or physical disability, please call Gebhardt & Kiefer and speak with an attorney experienced in all aspects of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
 The court referred to the student by initials only to protect his privacy.
Noel A. Lesica, Esq. focuses her practice on labor and employment and general litigation. She has experience in virtually all aspects of employment law, including investigating and addressing claims involving sexual and other forms of unlawful harassment and discrimination, retaliatory practices, wage and hour violations, pay equity violations, leave entitlements under federal, state and local law, and restrictive covenants. Ms. Lesica has also advised clients on a wide range of compliance issues related to COVID-19.
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Any statements made herein are solely for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon or construed as legal advice.