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 believe everyone has a right to work in the field of their choice and a disability should not prevent you from attaining a job you can do. If you can’t do the job, that’s another story. If you can’t communicate – why would you get a job that requires that skill? He has to show some personal responsibility here. I also wonder about the school – he’s been there since 1985. I have a hard time believing that these issues are just now starting up.

  2. To RWL, you don’t *get* Aspergers. Either you have it all your life, or you don’t.

    To Justice Holmes, Aspergers isn’t always a serious problem.

    I have Aspergers — high functioning, and I really doubt that the professor’s Aspergers is very severe or he probably wouldn’t have made it to where he is in his career. Whatever problems he’s having currently are more likely to stem from his periods of depression, if they’re severe, or from some other, undiagnosed, issue. Severe depression is sometimes part of undiagnosed BP II. It can be aggravated by stress, so without knowing more of the situation, armchair diagnoses are nothing but guesswork.

  3. The reason BarkinDog is so skeptical in his assessment above is that this so called disorder is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM 5). Here is what Wikipedia says about the so called disorder:

    The syndrome is named after the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger who, in 1944, studied and described children in his practice who lacked nonverbal communication skills, demonstrated limited empathy with their peers, and were physically clumsy.[3] The modern conception of Asperger syndrome came into existence in 1981[4] and went through a period of popularization,[5][6] becoming standardized as a diagnosis in the early 1990s. Many questions remain about aspects of the disorder.[7] There is doubt about whether it is distinct from high-functioning autism (HFA);[8] partly because of this, its prevalence is not firmly established.[1] The diagnosis of Asperger’s was eliminated in the 2013 fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and replaced by a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder on a severity scale.[9]

    The exact cause is unknown. Although research suggests the likelihood of a genetic basis,[1] there is no known genetic cause[10][11] and brain imaging techniques have not identified a clear common pathology.[1] There is no single treatment, and the effectiveness of particular interventions is supported by only limited data.[1] Intervention is aimed at improving symptoms and function. The mainstay of management is behavioral therapy, focusing on specific deficits to address poor communication skills, obsessive or repetitive routines, and physical clumsiness.[12] Most children improve as they mature to adulthood, but social and communication difficulties may persist.[7] Some researchers and people with Asperger’s have advocated a shift in attitudes toward the view that it is a difference, rather than a disability that must be treated or cured.[13][14]
    -end of wiki

    We have dogs in the dogpac who exhibit these symptoms. We observe that they do not know or inherently poop in a north south direction. Thus, we diagnosis these dogs a “sans bi polar” meaning they lack bi polar capability and may have non dog genes in them.

  4. I like the cases cited by David W above. I would say that the guy needs to pass the North /South dog test discussed on another topic today. Yes, we need to see if he is “dog bi polar”. If he is, then there is hope for recovery and he should be sent to Siberia for treatment. The farther toward the North Pole the better. Sit him in an igloo for a month in below zero temps. Send him back to John Marshal and command him to poop. See which direction he is pointing . If it is on the North/South axis then he will be cured. Meanwhile find a public defender to teach his law courses to the students.

  5. I don’t quite understand. It seems his Asperger’s did not interfere with his teaching abilities until fairly recently. His depression, may or may not be new but I would expect absent pychotic depression or to the level of being unable to function it would not be considered a disability at least under the ADA. It sounds more like this man, Asperger’s or not, for some reason has been unable to continue teaching as he evidenty had been able to for quite a number of years.

  6. Although he attributes his misconduct to Asperger’s syndrome, the law does not require an employer to tolerate misconduct simply because an employee is suffering from a disability. Krasner v. NY (S.D. N.Y. 2013). The ADA doesn’t immunize disabled employees from discipline or discharge for incidents of misconduct in the workplace.

    Palmer v. Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill., 117 F.3d 351 (7th Cir. 1997) (“if an employer fires an employee because of the employee’s unacceptable behavior, the fact that that behavior was precipitated by a mental illness does not present an issue under the ADA”).

    Whether a plaintiff attributes their behavior to a disability or to work stress is irrelevant, because the ADA provides no bar to discipline for misconduct. Pernice v. City of Chicago, 237 F.3d 783, 785 (7th Cir. 2001).

    In Schwarz v. Loyola University Medical Center (N.D. IL 2012), a physician with ADHD and general anxiety disorders was terminated from a plastic surgery residency program for demeaning & derogatory comments made towards hospital staff members, and other inappropriate interpersonal behavior. He had requested a “slow, gradual warm-up period” to get accustomed to the duties of a surgical resident, but that accommodation was rejected and the court upheld that decision because it was evident he lacked the skills necessary to perform the basic job functions (including communication, social interaction, forming & maintaining relationships, and verbal cognition).

    In Jakubowski v. Christ Hospital, 627 F.3d 195 (6th Cir. 2010), the court upheld a decision to terminate a resident physician with Asperger’s because he lacked the ability to perform an essential job function – communicating with professional colleagues & patients – either with or without a reasonable accommodation. The hospital said it lacked the resources to comply with his proposed accommodations (a remediation program), and the concurring judge said his other suggestions (informing the staff & patients of his condition so they’d be on notice) were too attenuated for a jury to find that they would actually succeed.

  7. Aspergers is a serious disability but I think this guy is taking advantage of a law meant to benefit people with serious problems. If he is, he should be ashamed because his complaint will hurt people who really need help.

    I tend to agree with Nick’s diagnosis.

  8. John Marshall is my alma mater, but this professor started after I graduated from JMLS. However, I am confused how attempting to provide a reasonable accommodation is not possible here. Does the employer have a duty to try a reasonable accommodation? If an attempt to accommodate is not successful, then the school can wash its hands of this professor. It seems obvious that he was able to cope with the affliction for many years at the school, so why not try a reasonable accommodation?

  9. Effective communication is among the most important skills needed by attorneys to be effective in their profession. A law professor who interacts with students as Mr. Cornwell apparently did sets a very poor example. Law students (like students in other fields) tend to learn from the examples set by their teachers as well as from the substantive matters about which they are instructed. Even as to substantive matters, distractions caused by an angry teacher’s outbursts impair learning.

    Permit me to suggest an extreme comparison. A flight instructor, capable of making exemplary take offs and flying aircraft flawlessly at altitude, but unable to make acceptably smooth landings, should not be teaching students how to fly. Frequent marginal or worse landings, even in perfect conditions, would set examples of acceptable landings to the point that his students’ likelihood of failing the relatively easy FAA flight check for a private pilot license would be abnormally high. Similarly, a former student of Mr. Cornwell who followed his example, got admitted to practice law, appeared in court and directed similar angry outbursts toward the judge and/or opposing counsel would, quite reasonably, be viewed as an incompetent trial lawyer.

    At the law school from which I was graduated, we had an elderly professor who had once been the dean. Previously a brilliant attorney and scholar, he had become obviously senile and his classes were a farce. He managed to cover the first fifty or so pages of the casebook shortly before the end of the second semester. During the last few weeks, he stood at his lectern, flipped quickly through the remaing eight hundred pages or so and told us such things as “that was an interesting case” and “I argued that case but lost because the judge didn’t understand the Constitution.” The problems had became apparent to his students early on. Several of us spoke with the then current dean concerning them and asked for a different teacher. Although the dean did not seem to be surprised, he did nothing that year. Fortunately for future students, that was that teacher’s last year of teaching.

  10. “In October 2013, Cornwell was again the subject of a complaint in an incident with two unprepared students in class.”

    A complaint? Really? A particular torts professor had the following attendance rules: Five unexcused absences and you flunk. Being unprepared results as two unexcused absences and being kicked out of the classroom.

    True Story —

    Defense: Isn’t it true that you allege that my client’s car collided with the motorcycle you were riding at 7:30 a.m.?

    Plaintiff: Yes.

    Defense: And isn’t it true that you did not go to the emergency room until 9:30 on the same morning?

    Plaintiff: Yes.

    Defense: Isn’t it true that instead of immediately going to the emergency room you instead went to your law school class?

    Plaintiff: Yes.

    Defense; And do you expect the jury to believe that you suffered serious and painful injuries in the collision if you were able to go to class?

    Plaintiff: You don’t understand. It was Professor {insert name}’s class.

    Court; Move along, counsel.

  11. I have to ask the obvious question — how was the administration supposed to know, and what were they supposed to do about it? I had a Contracts prof who, in hindsight, was clearly a high-functioning sociopath, and he was not just tolerated, but celebrated.

  12. Total Nonsense! But, as long as you leave pscho psychiatrists as advisors & teachers of government & allow the government to sic them onto the people, you will have nonsenses like this along with terrible tragedies like Sandy Hook. Psychs seek to divert responsibility & tell the weak of mind that they have no responsibility for their condition, because, if you ever took them up on their own crimes you would be shocked & they would forever be shunned.

  13. What about the students?

    They are paying a fortune, spending three years, and investing a lot of hope/dreams in their education.

    They deserve more than a professor patently unable to function “as is”.

  14. Question(s): Did the professor have Asperger’s/Autism before he was hired as a faculty member (in other words, is autism genetic or environmental? Can one actually become autistic or are you born with it?)?

    Since he has been a faculty member for over 20 years, one can assume he has tenure? Does John Marshall Law School have a tenure system in place? The law school suspended him (with pay?), while banning him from campus? Notice: they didn’t place him on administrative leave until he receives medical attention and/or the Law School decides how to handle this issue?

    When did the law school become aware of his disability? His job application/interviews? Did the law school hire him, knowing that he had autism/Asperger’s? How many more incidents/outbursts transpired over a 20+ year period without the school intervening?

  15. There’s something wrong here…. Did they know he had this disability….. And if he’s hired to teach lawyering skills…. Omg…. A disaster in the wake….

  16. When we attempt to satisfy the desires and needs of the majority by various social programs, to me it opens the door to the advancement of actions such things as this, that require others to do things to accommodate the problems of an individual. If he was creative, I’m sure he could find a remedy to his problem. Getting students to help him is just one possibility.

    He has the unalienable right to do as he desires but he should not have the right to force others, in the case the University, to support him up and above what they do for others.

  17. Additionally, I have seen many photos of the aforementioned kid, none were nearly as engaging a photo as the one of this professor.

  18. A friend of mine who has a son w/ Asperger’s sent me that article. His son is black and the lily white, upper middle, class, female, school district thought he was retarded err…developmentally disabled. I’ve known this kid since he was in grade school and there is NO DOUBT he has Asperger’s. He makes little eye contact, poor social skills, etc. He is whip smart and is now an architect. His dad and I have had discussions about how Asperger’s has become the new hot, diagnosis.

    There is another over diagnosed syndrome, ADHD. However, the motivation for that is money, and the education industry has been complicit w/ that over diagnosis. This professor has A$$Hole Syndrome if I may diagnose from my remote office via a blog! Hopefully the school doesn’t give an inch.

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