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Christopher J. Reichert v. Elizabethtown College

April 10, 2012

CHRISTOPHER J. REICHERT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ELIZABETHTOWN COLLEGE, ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff Christopher Reichert brought this action against Elizabethtown College, Dr. Carroll Tyminski, Dr. Mimi Staulters, Dr. Rachel Finley-Bowman, Dean Marie Calenda, Provost Susan Traverso, and Dr. Susan Pitcher under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and the Rehabilitation Act ("RA") for failure to provide reasonable accommodations for his disabilities and for creating a hostile environment. He also sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1985 for conspiracy to discriminate against him based on his disabilities and under Pennsylvania law for breach of contract. The Court conducted a bench trial from January 9, 2012 through January 12, 2012. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds in favor of Defendants.

I. FINDINGS OF FACT

A. Reichert's Disabilities

Reichert suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"), epilepsy, and other challenges in learning, including "extremely slow language processing." (Trial Tr., 1/9/12 at 43, 117-18, 128.) His disabilities create difficulties with comprehension, organization, and time management. (Id. at 46, 73, 171.) As a result of Reichert's ADHD and slow language processing, Reichert has poor listening comprehension and frequently interrupts people. (Id. at 44.) Reichert also has seizures related to his epilepsy, which can be brought on by a lack of sleep. (Trial Tr., 1/10/12 at 114; Trial Tr., 1/11/12 at 130.)

Reichert's ADHD life coach, Casey Dixon, testified that Reichert's greatest deficit is his slow processing speed, which places his academic fluency in the first percentile for his college year. (Trial Tr., 1/9/12 at 39.) Due to his processing disorder, Reichert has a hard time listening and processing speech. (Id. at 118.) As a result, he must spend more time to accomplish the same work as his peers, causing him extreme frustration. (Id.) Dixon explained that Reichert's frustration manifests in trembling and eye rolling and leads him to raise his voice. (Id. at 49.) Reichert also mutters to himself as a compensatory strategy to help him focus, and he was often not aware of his muttering at the time. (Id. at 109, 120.)

Reichert's disabilities adversely affected his performance in college. (Id. at 128.) He had difficulty comprehending lectures and focusing in class. (Id.) If he did not get enough sleep, he might appear disheveled. (Id.) He sometimes blurted out inappropriate comments in class. (Id. at 129.) However, Reichert testified that none of these challenges affect him when he is teaching because he is "hyper-focused" and not distracted. (Id. at 130.)

B. Reichert's Accommodations and Initial Experience at Elizabethtown College

In Spring 2007, Reichert was accepted to Elizabethtown College. (Id. at 133.) Reichert hoped to be a teacher, so he and his mother evaluated colleges based on their education departments and disability services offices. (Id. at 133-35.) Reichert and his mother attended Elizabethtown College's open house, and they spoke with Dr. Tyminski, Chair of the Education Department, and Shirley Deichert, Director of Disability Services, to learn how the college supports its students with disabilities. (Id. at 133-35.) After enrolling at Elizabethtown College, Reichert submitted to the college his high school psychological evaluations, which document his learning disabilities. (Trial Ex. P-1 [Psychological Assessments] at 1.) Reichert's evaluations note the support services and accommodations that he received in high school, and that when in college, Reichert would benefit from a note-taker for his classes. (Id. at 1, 4.)

In July 2007, Reichert's high school psychologist prepared a psychoeducational evaluation addendum to provide recommendations to Elizabethtown College. These recommendations include:

(1) appropriate modifications and accommodations in all classes, including foreign language classes, or a substitute for the foreign language requirement; (2) 50 percent or greater extended time for class assignments and tests; (3) development of Reichert's self-advocacy skills with support from the disability services office and (4) the option for Reichert and his parents to pursue an updated independent evaluation at their own expense if Reichert's needs change. (Id. at 5.)

In August 2007, Elizabethtown College approved the following accommodations for Reichert for the Fall 2007 semester: (1) 100 percent extended time for tests; (2) a distraction-free test site; (3) a note-taker if needed; (4) books on Kurzweil, software that scans and reads aloud printed material; (5) a substitution for the foreign language core requirement; and (6) no penalty for in-class misspelling. (Trial Ex. D-3 [Accommodations Sheet, Fall 2007].) In January 2008, the college added priority course scheduling to Reichert's list of accommodations. (Trial Ex. D-4 [Accommodations Sheet, Spring 2008].) Reichert received all of these accommodations as a student at Elizabethtown College. (Trial Tr., 1/9/12 at 138-39, 195-98, 204-05.) Additionally, Reichert received extended time for written assignments, which was added to Reichert's accommodation sheet in Fall 2008, so long as the accommodation did "not jeopardize integrity of [the] course." (Trial Ex. D-6 [Accommodations Letter Additions, Fall 2008]; Trial Tr., 1/9/12 at 198.) Director of Disability Services Deichert worked with Reichert in course selection to ease his transition to college. (Trial Tr., 1/9/12 at 137.)

During Reichert's first semester at Elizabethtown College, he was caught cheating on a final exam that he was taking in the disability services office. (Id. at 151.) Rather than report the incident, Reichert's professor, Dr. Toro, allowed him to retake it for partial credit. (Id. at 151-52.) As a result of the cheating incident, however, Reichert was required to take his exams in the education department instead of the disability services office. During an exam in the education department, the proctor left the door open, preventing Reichert from having a distraction-free testing environment. (Id. at 166.) The new Director of Disability Services, Kris Sagun, shared Reichert's concerns about the test-taking environment with his education department advisor, Dr. Staulters, who agreed to allow Reichert to take exams in the disability services office if he was prevented from cheating. (Trial Ex. P-21 [Staulters' Notes] at 3/13/09 entry.)

Throughout Reichert's time at Elizabethtown College, faculty and students raised concerns about whether Reichert completed his own work. For example, during a group project in March 2009, one of Reichert's teammates reported to Dr. Staulters that she was frustrated because Reichert's work "had clearly been plagiarized." (Id. at 3/16/09 entry; Trial Tr., 1/11/12 at 57.) The teammate said that a Google search revealed that Reichert's work had been copied from a website, but when she asked Reichert to redo the work, he responded defensively. (Staulters' Notes at 3/16/09 entry.) Additionally, in a May 2009 meeting between Dr. Staulters and Reichert, Reichert's mother, and Dixon, among others, Dr. Staulters asked Dixon and Mrs. Reichert whether either had written Reichert's curriculum-based assessment ("CBA"). (Trial Tr., 1/9/12 at 65, 167.) Dr. Staulters said that the vocabulary was too complex and that the assignment did not match the materials from class. (Trial Tr., 1/11/12 at 55.) Dixon and Mrs. Reichert both denied the charge. (Trial Tr., 1/9/12 at 65.)

C. Children's Literature Assignment and Aftermath

During Fall 2008, Reichert took a children's literature course with Dr. Snyder, which required the students to read and write brief reviews of 100 children's books over the course of the semester. Reichert felt overwhelmed by the assignment, and on September 30, 2008, Reichert and Dr. Staulters discussed whether he should drop the course. Because the course was a requirement for his major, Reichert would have to retake the course in a later semester. (Trial Tr., 1/11/12 at 41.) The education department denied Reichert's request for an exception to that course requirement due to his disability because the department's course work is approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education for accreditation purposes. (Id.)

Dr. Staulters worked with Reichert on strategies to ease the workload, and they discussed the importance of the assignment for teaching and for his subsequent course work. (Staulters' Notes at 9/30/08 entry.) Upon Reichert's request, Dr. Staulters discussed the assignment with Dr. Snyder who said that "the assignment was a priority particularly because elementary teachers would be required to read hundreds of books over the course of a few months." (Id. at 10/6/08 entry.) However, Dr. Snyder said that "she was very flexible about deadlines for accepting the reading responses and that she had already told [Reichert] he could have extra time if necessary." (Id.) During their meeting, Dr. Snyder told Dr. Staulters about her concerns about Reichert's participation in class, noting that "he tended to make statements that were offensive to her or to some of the other students in class and that . . . he did not think about the impact of what he was saying before he spoke." (Id.) Throughout the semester, Dr. Staulters met with Reichert on numerous occasions to work on strategies to complete the assignment, though Reichert repeatedly expressed his anger over having to complete it. (Trial Tr., 1/11/12 at 71.)

On the evening of November 10, 2008, Reichert approached Dr. Snyder after class and asked her to halve the number of children's books that he was required to read and review for the class because of his disabilities. (Trial Tr., 1/9/12 at 145; Trial Ex. P-3 [Snyder-Tyminski-Rankin Emails, 11/10/08-11/11/08] at 3.) At that point, Reichert had turned in ten of sixty required responses. (Snyder-Tyminski-Rankin Emails, 11/10/08-11/11/08 at 3.) In an email, Dr. Snyder expressed to Dr. Tyminski her serious concerns about Reichert's request and his conduct in the meeting. (Id.) Dr. Snyder wrote, "I understand that he has some disabilities, but I am concerned that this is a big reduction compared to what's expected for everyone else." She asked, "[w]hat is reasonable for him with regard to this assignment given his disability? He cites stress and epilepsy as the reasons that he can't handle this class." (Id.) Dr. Snyder also noted her more serious concerns about Reichert's conduct during their discussion:

Compounding this issue is the fact that when I suggested that other students are also feeling overwhelmed, he threatened to "get loud" with me if [I] compared him to other students. He asked me to call his mother (!). He was shaking when he talked with me.

I assured him that I would seek guidance from you. I also told him that I felt that he was threatening me and that I wouldn't stand for that kind of language from him.

This seemed to calm him down a bit. The whole conversation was very civil, but still inappropriate in my mind. (Id.) Reichert justified the encounter by noting that Dr. Snyder had insulted him by "comparing [him] to typical, non-disabled peers or adults, and [he's] not them." (Trial Tr., 1/11/12 at 146.) Reichert said he never threatened Dr. Snyder and agreed with Dr. Snyder's description of the meeting as "very civil." (Id. at 147.)

On November 11, 2008, Dr. Tyminski forwarded Dr. Snyder's email to Stephanie Rankin, Assistant Dean of Students, and Reichert's academic advisors. (Snyder-Tyminski-Rankin Emails, 11/10/08-11/11/08 at 1.) Dr. Tyminski pointed out that Reichert had previously intimidated or threatened his education professors. (Id.) Dr. Tyminski said that she "had complaints from three ED professors before this incident. His classroom behavior is disruptive and rude. He is creating a classroom environment that makes it difficult for his peers to learn." (Id.) Dr. Tyminski sought advice on how to proceed. (Id.) Dean Rankin said that Reichert's continuing outbursts and threatening tone "would be cause for seriously considering whether this student is an optimum candidate for teaching young people." (Id. at 9.) She also noted that Mrs. Reichert had called disability services to complain about the 100-book requirement. (Id.) Dr. Staulters responded that she had repeatedly spoken with Reichert about his conduct and tone, telling Reichert "that he needs to monitor his behavior because when he becomes defensive he comes off as aggressive and very rigid in his thinking, . . . [which] appears unprofessional." (Id.)

Dr. Snyder and Dr. Tyminski further discussed the encounter on November 11, 2008, and Dr. Snyder emphasized that she "never felt not in control of the situation," but that she had thought about her safety when she left the building and wondered if she would find her tires slashed. (Id. at 7.) She also told Dr. Tyminski about Reichert's inappropriate comments that Reichert made in class, including racist remarks and ethnic generalizations. (Id.)

On November 12, 2008, Tyminski called an emergency meeting of the education department to discuss the concerns raised by Reichert's behavior. (Trial Ex. P-5 [Educ. Dep't Emergency Meeting Minutes, 11/12/08]; Trial Tr., 1/10/12 at 134.) Dr. Toro brought up Reichert's cheating incident, sleeping in class, and "inappropriate racial and sexist comments," and that his attitude was arrogant and defensive. (Educ. Dep't Emergency Meeting Minutes, 11/12/08 at 2.) Dr. Pitcher, noted Reichert's disruptive side conversations and defensive responses. (Id.) Another faculty member, Dr. Elizabeth Coyle, felt that, based on the comments of others, Reichert was a prime candidate for a risk assessment and suggested that a school safety expert evaluate his case. (Id.) Dr. Tyminski expressed her concerns for the safety of faculty who teach at night and suggested that campus security ...


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