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Neal v. University of North Carolina

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

May 1, 2018

OLIVIA NEAL, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA and EAST CAROLINA UNIVERSITY, Defendants.

          ORDER

          W. Earl Britt Senior U.S. District Judge

         This matter is before the court on the motion to dismiss filed by defendants University of North Carolina (“UNC”) and East Carolina University (“ECU”) (collectively “defendants”). (DE # 9.) The motion has been fully briefed and is therefore ripe for disposition.

         I. FACTS

         Plaintiff enrolled in the Masters of Social Work Program (the “MSW Program”) at ECU's School of Social Work (the “SOSW”) in the fall of 2012. (Compl., DE # 1-1, ¶ 9.) Before enrolling in the MSW Program, plaintiff disclosed to the SOSW that she had an existing diagnosis of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”). (Id. ¶ 29.) In the fall of 2014, plaintiff began suffering some episodes of mild mania. (Id. ¶ 41.) Her mental state and associated behaviors were noticed by several faculty members in the SOSW. (Id. ¶¶ 42-45.) Based on the faculty's concerns regarding plaintiff's “erratic behavior” and “disorganized and hard to follow” expressions, (id. ¶¶ 43, 45), her performance was reviewed by the Academic and Retention Committee (“A&R Committee”), which makes recommendations to the SOSW concerning whether a student should be retained in the MSW Program, (id. ¶¶ 46-47).

         On 6 October 2014, the A&R Committee convened and decided to retain plaintiff in the program. (Id. ¶ 51.) The A&R Committee “determined that while [p]laintiff exhibited signs of mental health issues, the behaviors reported did not impact professional requirements or impair [p]laintiff from continuing in the MSW [Program].” (Id.) The A&R Committee also suggested that plaintiff be referred to “ECU Cares, ” a university service offering counseling for mental health issues. (Id. ¶ 52.)

         By the beginning of the spring 2015 term, plaintiff had completed 51 of the required 60 credits hours of study for the MSW degree. (Id. ¶ 12.) In order to complete her required coursework, plaintiff still had to pass two courses: (1) a once-a-week course taught by Professor Intae Yoon, and (2) a once-a-week seminar taught by Professor Lena Carawan based around a field internship at a homeless shelter in Goldsboro, North Carolina. (Id. ¶¶ 60-62.) Professor Nancy Pierson, the Director of Field Education for the SOSW, was assigned as plaintiff's field instructor to provide weekly supervision for the field internship. (Id. ¶¶ 66-67.)

         On 10 February 2015, while interacting with Professor Yoon, plaintiff “experienc[ed] a degree of mania, and her communications were dissociative and garrulous.” (Id. ¶ 68.) This manic episode was witnessed by Professor Pierson. (Id.) In the days following this episode, administrators and faculty members shared their concerns about plaintiff's mental health and its potential effect on her ability to meet the SOSW's expectations for performance in the classroom and field setting. (Id. ¶¶ 69-71.) Dr. Kerry Littlewood, Coordinator of the MSW Program and Assistant Director of the SOSW, responded to these concerns in an email on 18 February 2015, in which she noted that “it might be a violation of FERPA for the faculty to be discussing plaintiff's mental health and medication in relation to her performance in the MSW program.” (Id. ¶ 72.) Dr. Littlewood went on to state that plaintiff should be held to the same academic standards as other students, and directed plaintiff's professors to advise her if they had any concerns about plaintiff's academic performance. (Id. ¶¶ 72-73.)

         Later on 18 February 2015, Professor Carawan wrote an email to the faculty group praising plaintiff's academic work but expressing concerns about plaintiff's mental condition. (Id. ¶¶ 64, 74.) In that email, Professor Carawan noted “I know that we have to consider Olivia, the clients she sees and will see, our school, and the university and last but not least the MSW Degree.” (Id. ¶ 74) Professor Yoon responded that plaintiff would likely pass his course but that the faculty had to consider their “gatekeeping function.” (Id. ¶ 75.) Professor Pierson also wrote to the faculty group, stating that plaintiff “has been on track except for last Tuesday, ” but “if she can't sustain it, we cannot pretend that she is functioning okay.” (Id. ¶ 76.) Thereafter, Dr. Littlewood sent an email asking the faculty to continue to keep each other apprised of any concerns involving plaintiff's academic performance, well-being, and inappropriate behavior. (Id. ¶ 77.)

         The following week, on 26 February 2015, plaintiff was “involved in an automobile accident, at which time she was found to be in a manic state.” (Id. ¶ 80.) Plaintiff was admitted to Holly Hill mental hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was diagnosed with Manic Depressive and/or Bipolar Disorder. (Id. ¶¶ 35, 80.) While at Holly Hill, plaintiff was not allowed to communicate with persons on the outside. (Id. ¶ 81.) However, plaintiff alleges that two SOSW administrators-Dr. Littlewood and Dr. Sheila Bunch, Director of the MSW Program-were informed of her hospitalization by 3 March 2015, the first day of ECU's spring break. (Id. ¶ 84.) Plaintiff was released from Holly Hill on 13 March 2015. (Id. ¶ 81.) During her 15-day hospitalization, plaintiff missed one session of each of her two classes. (Id. ¶ 82.)

         On the day of plaintiff's release from the hospital, Dr. Littlewood notified plaintiff via email that she was required to attend an A&R Committee meeting at 9:00 a.m. on 16 March 2015. (Id. ¶ 91.) Plaintiff admits that she did not attend the A&R Committee meeting, citing her inability “to access her university email until the evening of March 16, 2015.” (Id. ¶¶ 92, 98.) At that time, “plaintiff immediately reminded Dr. Littlewood that she had been in the hospital and requested that the A&R meeting be rescheduled to the following afternoon, Tuesday March 17, 2015.” (Id.) In response to plaintiff's request, Dr. Littlewood forbade plaintiff from attending her scheduled classes, and set a meeting for the following afternoon to discuss the recommendation from the A&R Committee. (Id. ¶ 95.)

         Upon meeting with Dr. Littlewood on 17 March 2015, plaintiff presented a letter from her psychiatrist stating that he had reviewed her case and supported her return to normal school activities. (Id. ¶ 96.) At that time, Dr. Littlewood gave plaintiff a written notice of dismissal. (Id. ¶ 97.) Per the notice, plaintiff's dismissal was based on her “fail[ing] to meet the standards and competencies required to perform as an ethical, professional, and knowlegeable [sic] social worker.” (Id. ¶ 99.) The notice specifically cited incidents of tardiness in assignments and attendance, plaintiff's failure to be responsive to communications from the faculty during the period between 10 February and 16 March 2015, problematic behaviors observed by the faculty in the fall of 2014, the faculty's belief that plaintiff suffered from “impaired functioning, ” and the faculty's belief that plaintiff's “‘mental health difficulties' would inevitably result in both her failure of the field course and the impairment of her professional judgment.” (Id. ¶¶ 101-02.)

         On 25 March 2015, plaintiff presented the SOSW with a letter from her psychiatrist explaining: (1) her diagnosis of Bipolar Disease; (2) that her ADHD medications may have contributed to her episodes of mania; (3) that treatment brought her symptoms under control; (4) she was no longer manic; and (5) she was able to continue her coursework at ECU. (Id. ¶ 106.) The SOSW refused to reconsider its decision. (Id. ¶ 107.) Plaintiff then appealed the decision pursuant to the ECU Graduate School Appeal Policy. (Id. ¶ 108.) This policy provides that “no adverse recommendation or action” will be effective until an appeal is concluded. (Id.)

         After filing her appeal, plaintiff continued to attend Professor Yoon's class, and she earned a passing grade of B. (Id. ¶ 109.) Plaintiff, however, was not allowed to continue her field internship or to attend the weekly companion seminar. (Id. ¶¶ 110-11.) While her appeal was pending, plaintiff continued to work at the homeless shelter on a volunteer basis. (Id. ¶ 111.) Plaintiff obtained the services of a licensed clinical social worker (“LCSW”) to supervise her work at the shelter, and completed the required hours for the field internship. (Id. ¶ 112.) She also continued to turn in all of her assignments for the field seminar, but her assignments were never graded. (Id. ¶¶ 113-114)

         In June 2015, the review panel upheld plaintiff's dismissal from the MSW Program. (Id. ¶ 117.) The review panel based its decision on its finding that plaintiff had exhibited “erratic and unprofessional behavior on February 10, 2015” and her “inconsistent ...


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