United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
Earl Britt Senior U.S. District Judge
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.
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