There is an interesting case out of Pennsylvania where a nursing student is suing Misericordia University for failing to adequately accommodate her anxiety and depression after failing a required course twice. While her professor Christina Tomkins (right) gave Jennifer Burbella (left) extra time for her final exam and “a distraction-free” environment, his failure to take her calls with questions during the exam was cited as a violation of the federal disability law.
Burbella alleges “reckless, outrageous, wanton, willful and malicious behavior” by the university and cites another student who she said received greater accommodations for anxiety. Shine Misericordia received federal funding, she alleges that her protection as an “otherwise qualified” individual was denied.
She is seeking $75,000 in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania as well as a jury trial.
Burble says that much of her time at the university since enrolling has been spent at the university counseling center for her anxiety, depression and difficulties with concentration. She says that she had these problems before enrolling.
She said that insufficient support led to her failing the course in November 2013 and that she was required to retake the course as part of her nursing studies. She was given the choice of either retaking the course in the summer or change her major. She opted to retake the exam in the summer. She had two failing grades in the class but was given extra time to complete tests as well as access to a “distraction-free environment” approved by a school psychologist.
Tomkins reportedly offered an additional accommodation in allowing her to ask questions of the professor via cell phone during the test. However, since the alternative test-taking center was located “quite a distance” from where the rest of the students would be taking the test, Burbella asked to take the exam in the same building as the other students to ensure face-to-face communication. Her request was denied. Then, the complaint alleges, Tomkins did not answer her phone. The university counselor reportedly saw Burbella “breaking down and crying” when there was no response to her calls. She ultimately failed the test again.
The question is how far a school must go to accommodate such disabilities, particularly in a stressful profession like nursing. Schools are often faced with uncertain standards in the ADA but this is particularly challenging since the disability is tied to stress and even the denial of accommodations can increase such condition. On the other hand, having access to a teacher does seem an important element of testing if you are addressing a problem of anxiety and stress. This does not mean that she should be given any additional help vis-a-vis other students, but having such access was probably a key component to the plan for stress reduction. Yet, if this is a treatable condition it is not clear why it could not be controlled for the taking of an exam. The treatable element is important since, presumably, if the disability can be controlled, an employer could be sued for refusing to hire (or firing) the disabled individual for merely having the disability. If it cannot be controlled even for the taking of an exam, en employer could face liability if a nurse breaks down on the job in a critical situation. Of course, there are various types of nursing that have differing levels of stress, but it would seem to remain one of the more unpredictable and stressful lines of work.
The case also raises the question of whether some disabilities simply cannot be fully accommodated in preparing students for the real environment of high stress positions. I often say that law school trains students on how to deal and process stress and time pressures. That must be equally or more true for nursing.
What do you think?