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Jeffrey North v. Widener University

April 4, 2012

JEFFREY NORTH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
WIDENER UNIVERSITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Tucker, J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

April ____, 2012

Presently before this Court is Defendant Widener University's ("Widener" or "Defendant") Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (Doc. 3) and Plaintiff Jeffrey North's ("Plaintiff" or "North") Response in opposition thereto (Doc. 6.) This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343, and 1367(a). Venue is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(a)(1) and (2). Upon consideration of the parties' motions with briefs and exhibits,*fn1 this Court will deny Defendant's Motion to Dismiss.

I. FACTS

This case arises from Plaintiff's expulsion from the Doctorate of Psychology ("Psy.D.") program (the "Program") at Widener. Plaintiff submits that he suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD") and that his expulsion was a result of discrimination based on this condition. The relevant facts giving rise to his expulsion are as follows.

During the Summer of 2005, Plaintiff resided at the home of a close family friend, Dr. Robert Gillespie, an adjunct professor in the Program. (Doc. 1, ¶ 7; Doc. 4 at 1.) In August 2006, Plaintiff applied to the Program and was accepted. (Doc. 1, ¶ 8.) He submits that Dr. Gillespie has been aware of his ADHD for many years, but told him not to disclose it to the faculty because it would be regarded as a "sign of weakness and unsuitability for the program." (Doc. 1, ¶ 8; Doc. 4 at 2.) Once enrolled in the Program, Plaintiff was assigned Dr. Kenneth Goldberg to serve as his faculty advisor. (Doc. 1, ¶ 9.)

Plaintiff struggled during his first year, earning a grade point average of 2.9, resulting in academic probation. (Doc. 1, ¶ 11.) Plaintiff also struggled behaviorally. On or about May 21, 2007, his professor, Dr. Barbara Goldsmith, submitted to her superiors a book containing some of Plaintiff's drawings, complaining that these drawings represented Plaintiff's "strange behavior" in the Program. (Doc. 1, ¶ 12.) After a series of probations and subsequent returns to good academic standing, Plaintiff took a leave of absence in 2008. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 13-15.) Plaintiff returned in good standing to begin his third year in 2009. (Doc. 1, ¶ 16.)

Further academic and behavioral difficulties arose in his third year. In March 2010, Plaintiff was again placed on academic probation. (Doc. 1, ¶ 18.) Plaintiff alleges that the reason was "the faculty's vague displeasure with his supposedly unusual behavior stemming from his ADHD." (Doc. 1, ¶ 18.) One such instance occurred in May 2010, when Plaintiff and a group of students were studying in a classroom when a faculty member asked them to leave. A misunderstanding ensued, "causing a rift" with the faculty member. (Doc. 1, ¶ 19.) In June 2010, Plaintiff took his third-year qualifying exam and passed six of the seven sections. (Doc. 1, ¶ 22.) Widener scheduled Plaintiff to retake his deficient section on October 23, 2010. (Doc. 1, ¶ 25.) On October 18, 2010, Plaintiff's grandfather passed away and the memorial service was held on October 23, 2010. (Doc. 1, ¶ 25.) Widener refused to reschedule Plaintiff's exam until Plaintiff presented written proof that his grandfather had actually died; only then did Widener agree to reschedule the exam for October 26, 2010 and October 28, 2010. (Doc. 1, ¶ 26.) Plaintiff passed half of the exam, but failed the other half by one point. (Doc. 1, ¶ 27.) Plaintiff had one point deducted for "incorrect clause structure" and another for improper use of the word "but." (Doc. 1, ¶ 44.)

On November 2, 2010, Dr. Goldberg sent Plaintiff an email, not from his official Widener email, but from an unknown email address he never used before in communicating with Plaintiff. (Doc. 1, ¶ 29.) In it, he requested that Plaintiff ask him in writing for leave to continue in the Program by November 5, 2010. (Doc. 1, ¶ 29.) Because Plaintiff's email system did not recognize Dr. Goldberg's email address, the system automatically placed the email in his "junk mail" folder and Plaintiff did not read it until Monday, November 8, 2010. (Doc. 1, ¶ 30.) That same day, Defendant expelled Plaintiff from the Program, citing his failing score, his failure to ask Dr. Goldberg to remain in the Program, and his "previous history of problematic behavior." (Doc. 1, ¶ 31.)

On November 8, 2010, Plaintiff wrote a letter asking to remain in the Program. (Doc. 1, ¶ 33.) This letter was apparently the first time Plaintiff officially notified Widener of his ADHD. (See Doc. 1, ¶¶ 32-33.) He also proposed to retake the portion of the section of the exam he failed, noting that approximately five of his peers (twenty percent of the class) also failed to pass the retake exam, but that Widener allowed them to continue in the program. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 32-33.) By letter dated November 19, 2010, Plaintiff appealed his termination from the Program. (Doc. 1, ¶ 34.) On November 22, 2010, the faculty met behind closed doors to reject Plaintiff's appeal. (Doc. 1, ¶ 37.)

On December 10, 2010, Plaintiff, through counsel, appealed again, asserting that his termination constituted illegal disability discrimination. (Doc. 1, ¶ 38.) Defendant responded that same day, notifying Plaintiff that the Academic Council would consider his appeal on December 16, 2010. (Doc. 1, ¶ 45.) Three days later, on December 13, 2010, Defendant demanded Plaintiff resubmit his appeal without the assistance of counsel. (Doc. 1, ¶ 45.) On December 14, 2010, Plaintiff responded by requesting the basis for his termination; he also demanded the right to counsel at his appeal meeting and for permission to question his accusers. (Doc. 1, ¶ 46.) On December 15, 2010, Defendant responded by rejecting all of Plaintiff's requests. (Doc. 1, ¶ 46.) On December 16, 2010, Plaintiff, by himself, attended a meeting with the Academic Council. (Doc. 1, ¶ 47.) By letter dated December 20, 2010, Defendant again rejected Plaintiff's appeal. (Doc. 1, ¶ 47.)

Plaintiff appealed his termination to the Academic Review Board, which met in secret on January 18, 2011 to discuss the appeal, which was again rejected. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 47-48.) Plaintiff then filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (the "OCR"). (Doc. 1, ¶ 49; Doc. 1-1.) By decision dated July 25, 2011, the OCR rejected Plaintiff's complaint. (Doc 1, ¶ 49; Doc. 1-1.)

On September 23, 2011, Plaintiff initiated the instant action. (Doc. 1.) The Complaint alleges two counts: (1) Violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; and (2) ...


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