John Marshall Law Professor Sues School For Failing To Accommodate His Inability To Communicate With Students And Staff

cornwell-joelJohn Marshall Law School professor Joel Cornwell has filed a complaint against the school for its alleged failure to address his depression and Asperger’s syndrome in violation the Americans with Disabilities Act. He claims that the school ignored his requests for assistance in his communications with staff and students after outbursts tied to his disabilities. He teaches lawyering skills and other subjects at John Marshall.

Cornwell says that his mild Asperger’s makes it difficult for him to read social cues and impairs social interactions. This allegedly led to a series of incidents where he had outbursts against maintenance workers and students. He was cited for incivility by the school after he argued with maintenance staff over their failure to arrange a room before his regular class. He was ordered to comply with a mental assessment by the school. Ironically that assessment is now part of the basis for the action against the school. It found that he had Asperger’s and intermittent depression. Cornwell took a recommended anger management class but then asked for school to supply a mental health professional to accommodate communication with the administration. That was declined by the school and he says that a later request for a faculty mentor to facilitate communications was ignored.

In October 2013, Cornwell was again the subject of a complaint in an incident with two unprepared students in class. He agreed to read an apology to the class and was placed on administrative suspension and banned from campus.

The case could define the extent to which schools must accommodate those faculty members who have disabilities that interfere with communications as well as what constitutes a disability requiring such support from the school. There remains ambiguity in the level of support for people with Asberger’s. For example, one site in the field warns “Although the Americans with Disabilities Act protects adults with Asperger syndrome in circumstances where they only require reasonable accommodations (i.e. in college or in their workplace), the same individuals are not entitled to services they may need to succeed in those environments.” This appears to be the likely heart of the school’s defense in the case. There was an article last year in the New York Magazine on the expanding scope of Asperger’s and whether that expansion is draining the disability of its meaning or likely protection:

In the nineties, clinicians began reconceptualizing autism from a singular disorder to a cluster of related conditions on a spectrum of severity; as the criteria broadened to encompass less acutely impaired people—such as the more verbal group diagnosed with Asperger’s—prevalence rose dramatically. Before 1980, one in 2,000 children was thought to be autistic. By 2007, the Centers for Disease Control were reporting that one in 152 American children had an autism-spectrum disorder. Two years later, the CDC updated the ratio to one in 110. This past March, the CDC revised the number upward again, to one in 88 (one in 54, if you just count boys, who are five times as likely to have one as girls). A South Korean study from last year put the number even higher, at one in 38. And in New Jersey, according to the latest numbers, an improbable one in 29 boys is on the spectrum.

It the disease is so ubiquitous, the question becomes the need and cost of businesses and institutions to supply such things as liaisons or mentors in cases like Cornwell’s. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) provides that “disability” is “defined as impairment that substantially affects one or more major life activity; an individual who has a record of having such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.” However, you must show that you are a “qualified individual” with a disability “who, with or without reasonable accommodation and that you can perform the essential functions” of the position. That last part raises the question of whether the accommodation would “fundamentally alter” the function and thereby the position of a teacher. Law professors are expected to communication in and out of class with students and staff. Corwell insists that he can do that through or with the assistance of an intermediary.

Cornwell joined the faculty in 1985. He teaches Lawyering Skills, Property, Philosophy of Law, Psychology and the Law, and Religion and the Law.

Source: ABA Journal

23 thoughts on “John Marshall Law Professor Sues School For Failing To Accommodate His Inability To Communicate With Students And Staff”

  1. I have read and abosrbed as much as my limited intellect can attain, in trying to grasp the issues of this case. Lawyering skills instructor ? Not a docent but staff… I have no valuable opinion here except to say that if one reads DeTocueville on lawyers, and then read Brutus, the Anti Federalist writer about the courts, both were very accurate…

  2. Catana,

    I do apologize for not responding sooner. However, I wasn’t implying that you ‘get Asperger Syndrome (SD) or any form of autism’ the same method as you would acquire a sinus infection. I was stating that Asperger SD/Autism has not been defined as a genetic disorder. In other words, studies have provided inconclusive evidence stating that Asperger SD is genetic and/or environmental. To this date, it is pure speculation to state that Asperger SD is genectic and/or environmental.

    However, both sides do agree that Asperger SD is acquired, noticed, or developed at the early stages of human development. The question is at what stage of human development is Asperger SD/Autism is developed? Genetically or Environmentally? At this point, it is pure speculation with inconclusive data.

    For more please see:

  3. I’m with raff on this. I think it would do the students good to have some understanding that not everyone who chooses the legal profession is perfect. [ok, I’m back after an attack of hysterical laughter.]

    In one of my management EO classes it was pointed out that when you hire someone who is differently abled, someone who needs some accommodation, the best way to deal with it is to ask them what they need. This professor understands that he needs help, he has made more than one suggestion. Unfortunately the university refuses and would rather lose an experienced professor. Most likely the administration also has trouble in communicating with him and don’t have the patience or the compassion to deal with him.

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