Universities Should Be Well Trained in ADA Compliance and Best Practices for Students with Mental Health Concerns

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • On Jan. 12, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a settlement with Quinnipiac University to resolve allegations that the university violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by imposing mandatory medical leave on a student diagnosed with depression.
  • Colleges and universities are well advised to review their medical leave policies. Blanket approaches with rigid, pre-established outcomes should be discarded in favor of individualized assessments of risk and reasonable accommodations.

On Jan. 12, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a settlement with Quinnipiac University, a private institution located in Connecticut, to resolve allegations that the university violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by imposing mandatory medical leave on a student diagnosed with depression. Consistent with prior cases, this settlement includes both individual and systemic remedies. The settlement requires Quinnipiac to pay the student $17,000 in compensation for emotional distress, pain and suffering, as well as $15,126.42 for tuition reimbursement. The settlement also requires Quinnipiac to implement several policy changes, including modifications to permit students with mental health disabilities to participate in educational programs and attend classes while seeking medical treatment. ADA training regarding mental health disability discrimination will be provided to all university staff.

Reasonable Accommodations Must Be Considered to Avoid Potential Repercussions

A student had complained that she was forced to take a medical leave of absence from Quinnipiac after seeking mental health counseling from the university's health center. The Justice Department asserted that Quinnipiac violated the ADA by failing to consider reasonable accommodations that might have allowed the student to complete her course work while living off campus and pursuing treatment. Quinnipiac denied violating the ADA but agreed to settle the matter by compensating the student and modifying its policies regarding students with mental health disabilities.    

The Justice Department's position on Title III of the ADA is consistent with the position taken by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act: mandatory medical leave policies for students with mental health disabilities are likely to violate the ADA because they do not incorporate an individualized assessment of risk and reasonable accommodations. As stated by U.S. Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta:

Under the ADA, universities like Quinnipiac cannot apply blanket policies that result in unnecessary exclusion of students with disabilities if reasonable modifications would permit continued participation; in many cases, such modifications can be as simple as allowing a student complete course work on a modified schedule.

Medical Leave Policies Should Be Flexible to Allow for Situational Discretion

In response to the student health and safety issues, many colleges and universities adopted mandatory medical leave policies, often at the direction of medical health professionals. However, enforcement actions by OCR and the Justice Department over the last several years have cast doubt on the legality of those policies to the extent that they may discriminate against students who have mental health disabilities or who are perceived as disabled. Accordingly, colleges and universities are well advised to review their medical leave policies. Blanket approaches with rigid, pre-established possible outcomes should be discarded in favor of individualized assessments of risk and reasonable accommodations. Policy administrators should be well trained in ADA compliance and best practices for safeguarding students with mental health concerns, and they should be equipped with clear but flexible policies that allow for situational discretion.