Slaughter v. Des Moines Univ. Coll. of Osteopathic Med.

Decision Date05 April 2019
Docket NumberNo. 17-1732,17-1732
Citation925 N.W.2d 793
CourtIowa Supreme Court

John P. Roehrick of Roehrick Law Firm, P.C., Des Moines, and Bonnie J. Heggen, Ankeny, for appellant.

Kelly R. Baier of Bradley & Riley PC, Cedar Rapids, and Melissa A. Carrington of Bradley & Riley PC, Iowa City, for appellee.

WATERMAN, Justice.

In this appeal, we review an evidentiary ruling and summary judgment ending a lawsuit by a student who failed to meet academic requirements in medical school and sued the school for failing to accommodate her mental disability. The student was treated for depression by a staff psychotherapist during the school year but did not give consent to allow the psychotherapist to discuss her depression with the faculty. Nor did the student inform the academic decision-makers of her depression until mid-December, after she had failed a required class and performed poorly on other classes her first semester. Several accommodations were provided or offered, but she failed another required class the second semester and again performed badly on other courses. The medical school expelled her based on her failing grades and lack of academic promise.

The student filed a complaint against the medical school with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and then filed this district court action alleging the school failed to accommodate her mental disability. She filed an evidentiary motion to impute her psychotherapist’s knowledge of her depression to the school’s academic decision-makers. The district court applied statutory confidentiality requirements for mental health information to deny her motion, finding the student had not waived the privilege, and granted the school summary judgment on her failure-to-accommodate claim. We retained her appeal.

For the reasons explained below, we hold the district court correctly declined to impute the psychotherapist’s knowledge to the medical school’s academic decision-makers. We also conclude based on the undisputed facts that the failure-to-accommodate claim failed as a matter of law. The student could not show the medical school denied any reasonable accommodation she requested or that any reasonable accommodation existed that would have allowed her to meet the school’s academic standards. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s evidentiary ruling and summary judgment.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

In August 2014, Natalie Slaughter started her first year of medical school at Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine (DMU). Almost immediately, she struggled academically. Slaughter soon came to the attention of the Academic Progress Committee (APC), a faculty committee that monitors student academic performance and conducts academic disciplinary hearings.

Dr. Donald Matz, chair of the APC, repeatedly warned Slaughter regarding her subpar academic performance, sending her letters on August 25, September 9 and 19, and October 10 and 15. Dr. Matz specifically warned Slaughter that she was in jeopardy of failing one or more of her courses. In each letter, Dr. Matz encouraged Slaughter to seek assistance from her course director, faculty advisor, the Center for Academic Success and Enrichment (CASE), and DMU’s student counseling center.

On September 3, Slaughter completed a client intake form at the student counseling center. Slaughter indicated she was seeking help for "high anxiety and trouble falling asleep." During her intake appointment, Slaughter signed a document titled "Client Rights, Responsibilities, and Informed Consent." One of the client rights was "[t]o know that personal information cannot be disclosed to anyone, except for professional consultation or supervision, without your specific, written permission." Slaughter underwent weekly counseling sessions with Dr. Emily Sanders, a staff psychologist employed by DMU, from September 9 until June 2015. During these sessions, Slaughter discussed her history of depression and anxiety and often reported feeling worried and depressed because of her bad performance on tests. Slaughter did not give Dr. Sanders permission to discuss her case with DMU’s faculty or administrators.

Meanwhile, on September 10, Slaughter completed an intake form at CASE indicating she "would like to find a study strategy that works best for [her]." She did not disclose her depression on the intake form. CASE provided Slaughter with time management strategies, electronic study resources, and one-on-one tutoring. Slaughter claims she talked to someone at CASE about the depressive symptoms she was experiencing and how those symptoms affected her academics, though she could not remember the person’s name. Slaughter also claims she discussed her depression with a student tutor from CASE.

On September 20, Slaughter emailed her faculty advisor, Shelley Oren, about her unsuccessful performance on the second biochemistry test. Slaughter and Oren continued to communicate, both in person and by email, throughout the semester. Slaughter did not disclose her depression to Oren.

On September 26, Dr. Matz met with Slaughter to discuss her poor performance in Gross Anatomy and Clinical Medicine. He gave Slaughter tips for labeling anatomical drawings to help her study for class. During this meeting, Dr. Matz encouraged Slaughter to utilize resources available at CASE.

At the end of the fall semester, Slaughter failed her biochemistry course and performed badly in Gross Anatomy and Clinical Medicine. On December 16, Slaughter met with the APC to discuss ways to improve her academic performance and to discuss her academic status. During this meeting, Slaughter was asked to describe her study habits. Slaughter indicated she preferred to watch lectures online instead of attending class in person. Slaughter stated she studied six to eight hours per day, but she was an English undergraduate major and was uncomfortable taking multiple-choice tests. Slaughter did not tell the APC that she was experiencing depression. She stated that she was sick before her first biochemistry examination and that she had trouble sleeping the night before tests. During this meeting, Slaughter was told about the Extended Pathways to Success Program, a program that allows students who are struggling with DMU’s traditional four-year program to take fewer courses each semester and complete their coursework in five years.

The following day, Slaughter met with Oren to discuss the APC meeting and the Extended Pathways Program in more detail. During this meeting, Slaughter disclosed for the first time that she was experiencing depression and did not believe she could handle a fifth year of medical school. Slaughter and Oren dispute whether Slaughter had described her symptoms, such as difficulty falling asleep and nervousness, to Oren earlier in the semester. Slaughter declined Oren’s request for permission to speak directly with Dr. Matz. Instead, Slaughter promptly that day emailed Dr. Matz disclosing her depression, stating,

[A]t the beginning of the semester I had some personal difficulties that I didn't entirely feel comfortable sharing in such a large setting. I have struggled with depression for a very long time, and at the beginning of the semester I had a horrible relapse of sorts. My normally well controlled disorder ended up severely affecting my life in ways it hasn't in many years. I was barely making it through the day without breaking down, and all the emotional energy it took for me to save face at school was so exhausting that by the time I would get home I had difficulty focusing on my coursework. I was extremely demoralized because of doing poorly it just ended up as this vicious cycle. There would be days where I couldn't get anything done and then I would get really behind, then crammed right before the test, do poorly, and then go right back into depression. I started seeing a therapist when I was about half of the way through biochem and as I have been working with her my mood has improved, making it easier for me to focus on school.

Slaughter also expressed her preference not to enter the Extended Pathways to Success Program:

My fear is that stretching [the program] out in a longer period of time would be extremely detrimental for my mental health, I know I can handle this type of environment for another 3 semesters, but adding on a whole year would be devastating and I fear greatly that I would end up being severely depressed. I really want you to know that my resistance of going to the 5 year plan isn't out of stubbornness or pride, but out of self-preservation. I truly believe that this option would not be beneficial to me at all and instead would be harmful, because my issue is finding the tools that work best for me and getting my depression under control, which would be hindered.

Dr. Matz responded to Slaughter’s email within fifteen minutes, stating that he appreciated her sharing that information and that the APC "want[ed her] to succeed." Dr. Matz did not share Slaughter’s email or any information about Slaughter’s depression with the APC.

On December 18, Dr. Matz wrote to Slaughter to inform her that the APC had decided to place her on academic probation. As a standard term of that probation, Slaughter was required to withdraw from her elective courses for the next semester so she could focus on her core classes. Dr. Matz again encouraged Slaughter to use the student counseling center and CASE, attend all classes, and enter the Extended Pathways to Success Program.

On January 7, 2015, Slaughter met with Dr. Craig Canby, the Associate Dean for Academic Curriculum and Medical Programs, to discuss DMU’s policies with regard to academic probation and academic dismissal and to develop an action plan for the upcoming semester. The action plan consisted of study strategies designed to help Slaughter learn course material. Dr. Canby was unaware of Slaughter’s depression. Dr....

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