Pennsylvania Nursing Student Sues School For Failing To Accommodate Her Anxiety and Stress Under ADA After Twice Failing Required Course

b8nursing_tomkins_christinaThere 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?

94 thoughts on “Pennsylvania Nursing Student Sues School For Failing To Accommodate Her Anxiety and Stress Under ADA After Twice Failing Required Course”

  1. “So, who is going to be holding her hand for the rest of her life then?

    Well, the ADA will make damn sure that either her employer or the government will.

  2. She really does need the professor on hand to reassure her that she is reading the question correctly, etc.

    So, who is going to be holding her hand for the rest of her life then?

  3. Why should a student with anxiety be allowed constant access to a teacher to ask questions during a test if the other students do not? That presents her with an unfair advantage. Accommodations for anxiety would include a therapy animal and medication, but they should not lesson the rigors of a test.

    Nursing is a high stress environment, and giving her extra help to pass is just going to give her a degree in a field for which she is unsuited, and could cause a health risk to those patients in the future she may attempt to treat. Then she could sue the school for giving her a useless degree, or for any harm she may do to a patient. Allowing someone to take and retake and retake a test, even allowing her to ask questions when other students do not, goes far above accommodating a disability. It crosses the line to cheating. Using this rationale, anyone who suffers anxiety would be allowed extra opportunities to pass a test, which is unfair to the rest of the class.

    And this brings up another question. Can a hospital refuse to hire a nurse or surgeon with uncontrolled anxiety, or one who requires a therapy animal, without running afoul of the ADA? I support therapy animals, and yet one should not be in the operating room of a neurosurgeon. And is that fair to patients to tell them, well, your heart surgeon today has uncontrolled anxiety and may not be able to complete your open heart surgery? If her anxiety could be controlled via therapy and/or medication, but that medication did not interfere with her ability to do her job, then she might be able to be a nurse. But if it could not be controlled, then should universities be forced to pass a failing nursing student, and should hospitals be forced to hire her?

    The ability to handle stress and anxiety is a prerequisite for fields such as nursing, surgery, and trial lawyer.

    1. Karen – as best I can work out the other students had access to the professor, but this student did not. She had asked that the testing be in the same building so she could have face-to-face contact with the teacher, but they decided to do long-distance (which is not unusual for this type of accommodation). The problem is that the professor did not make himself or herself available for questions from the student. If she is anxious to begin with she is already over-sensitive to the test material and reading too much into it. She really does need the professor on hand to reassure her that she is reading the question correctly, etc.

  4. I know that there are a lot of people who work in health professions that are addicted to drugs. Anti-anxiety drugs, usually. Maybe the schools should do a better job of defining the criteria needed for the different jobs before taking up so much of the student’s time and money. Would that be discrimination? I hope not.

  5. since the instructor was administering the test to the rest of the class at the time, one has to ask just how many times did she call? Did the constantly ringing cell phone create a distraction for the rest of the class who were also taking the test? Reasonable accommodation should put the emphasis on reasonable. If I had a student repeatedly calling me while I was administering a test, I would consider this distraction to be very unfair to the other students I was proctoring. Even if I had the phone silenced and stepped out of the room to take the calls, this would be distracting and unfair to the other students. There are very few questions that it is fair to answer for a particular student during a test anyway. Unless there is a typo on the test, in which case I would interrupt the entire class to explain it once, the test has the required information and giving additional information to a single student is also unfair.

  6. I think given her history of histrionics, depression and inability to recognize her own responsibility for her life, that it would be a cold day in h3ll if I were to ever hire this person.

    She is a liability to any sane employer.

    Good luck with your special snowflake status, you dimwit.

  7. Quality nursing is the factor that makes quality hospitals. No one whose life depended on good nursing would want this person a a nurse.

    1. Joe Rio – there is a big difference between how people perform on test and how they perform in their practicum.

  8. This is the sister college of where I went to school. I took a couple classes there. Back in the 70’s they put out some good nurses. And, nurses who put out.

  9. She will need similar accommodations when seeing patients.

    She will needs more time to see patients, need to call her supervisor for the right answer, need a separate area of her own to work in.

    Does the ADA require workplaces both to hire mentally unstable people and to make the work fit their untreated mental illness?

  10. Iam surprised that she did not asked for the answers to the test in advance, being to stressed out to be expected to remember them. Why would a professor agree to be available to answer phone calls during a test? The ADA is the most horrendously abused piece of legislation in the history of Congress.

    1. Bill H – I had a very dyslexic student whose spelling was so bad that I could not read it, so I gave her a tape recorder and a fresh tape and put her in the classroom next to the classroom where I was delivering the test for the rest of the students. I periodically checked to see if she had questions about the test questions.

      It is the professor’s job to deliver the test.

  11. Not all kids get to be what they want to be when they grow up. Oh well.

  12. If she manages to sue her way to a degree no employer who Googles her will ever hire her.

    1. pinandpuller – by the time she graduates she may be able to scrub her Google.

  13. Tyger, The Marines, not the Army Rangers. As of May 9, 2015:

    None from first-ever group of female soldiers training to be Army Rangers advance through first round.

    The class began with 19 women and 380 men but the numbers were nearly halved within four days of training.

    They failed to complete the last portion of the phase, which includes a land navigation test, a swim test and a 12-mile march.

  14. If the professor agreed to answer the phone and did not, then they violated their agreement and have violated the ADA. As a former teacher I have had to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ for students on a fairly regular basis and it is not a big deal. I have tested students with test anxiety separately before. Never had a student break down and cry during a test. 😉

  15. After she milks her “disability” for all it’s worth and gets tens of thousands of dollars out of the school, she will likely drop out and do something more suitable to her condition and aptitudes. Maybe she should join the Marines and train for front-line combat. Then she’d wackout so bad she’d have to be locked up and taken care of completely. Stupidity and irrationality in selecting one’s course in life doesn’t yet qualify as a disability or a privileged class, though.

  16. All professions require a set of skills. I would imagine that the nursing profession requires someone to be able to work in highly stressful situations. She probably shouldn’t be a nurse.

  17. Oh good grief. Neither one of them would’ve been accommodated for stress and anxiety during my time at nursing school. I’m all for reasonable accommodations under the ADA, but if they thought nursing school was tough, just wait until they get to their first day on the job with a grumpy overworked preceptor. Or just wait until they have shifts in which they don’t have time for a potty break, much less a lunch break. The stress is about to begin in earnest, nursing school is the halcyon days.

  18. One has to wonder if this student has chosen her major wisely. The life of a nurse offer little opportunities for a stress free environment and disease and injury rarely give extra time.

  19. Thank goodness the legal profession has become a defacto travel agency able to send so many folks on trips down DeNile. On the other hand, I might be a leading surgeon now had I been able to claim “anxiety and stress” to get me a better grade in my undergraduate Genetics class. Maybe I can retroactively sue my way into medical school.

    May you never be sick enough to be in the little darling’s care. Methinks she might leave you in mid-chest compressions to administer herself another dose of Prozac.

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