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. DBQ, I always appreciate when you give real world examples from the financial business.

  2. Paul, LPNs and RNs both are required to take a state board to hold their respective nursing licenses and work in their fields. No nurse regardless of their degree can practice without taking and passing a state board. It not called a “national board”, it’s called The State Boards. The LPN state board is one day long. The RN state board is two days long. An RN cannot simply work as an LPN without taking the STATE board and getting liscense do as an LPN.

  3. Both of our professions involve having to give bad news sometimes.

    Interesting, because in my profession I often had to give clients the bad news. Sometimes it was “the market or your investment is not doing well”. Somethings are beyond our control. But if you are aware of the risks and willing to take them beforehand, the bad news may not be such a blow.

    Other times I was forced to crush the dreams or the unrealistic expectations. “Your lifetime of not saving any money and spending foolishly has caught up to you and you will NEVER EVER be able to retire in the style you want” You don’t have enough assets and you do not have enough time.”. Of course I didn’t say it that way or that bluntly, but I often had to break the news to people that their dreams or goals were completely unrealistic, unachievable and…..I can’t help you. You have to sugar coat it sometimes, but you MUST be honest about the realities of what can be done.

    Maybe this type of career creates a type of personality….maybe it requires a type of personality. Which is first, the chicken or the egg? I am realistic, honest and sometimes direct to a fault. There is no point in beating around the bush when the honest answer… are screwed… the correct one.

  4. Pogo, People who know me KNOW to never ask me a question unless they want the blunt truth. If it’s someone who doesn’t know me well I’ll give them a mulligan. I’ll tell them they will get the unvarnished truth. Some wisely take the mulligan and take their question back. I’m the same w/ clients. I give them the bad news w/ no sugarcoating. Both of our professions involve having to give bad news sometimes. Being direct and honest is becoming more and more rare in our culture. I know no other way to be. I have had people say to me w/ derision, “You’re so direct.” That’s right, I am!

  5. She needs to learn the 6 hard truths:

    #6. The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You
    #5. The Hippies Were Wrong (the difference between two attitudes (bitter vs. motivated) largely determines whether or not you’ll succeed in the world)
    #4. What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People
    #3. You Hate Yourself Because You Don’t Do Anything
    #2. What You Are Inside Only Matters Because of What It Makes You Do
    #1. Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement

  6. “She may get an RN degree and wind up being fired repeatedly until she ends up in a very unpleasant job or changing careers. Learning the hard way is slow and painful.”

    Think of all the law suits.

  7. In the real world, people consider it so wrong to tell you the unvarnished truth, that they’ve decided it’s better to simply let you keep failing.


  8. I can hear my old man saying, “Buck up, buttercup.” There was no feeling sorry for yourself in the house I was raised. There was not an ounce of victimhood. My old man died back in the late 80’s. He would not believe what has happened to our culture. My mom was the same. A family of 13 kids w/ an alcoholic father during the Depression. We need a “Buck up, buttercup” sign in every disability office. And remember, ADA was signed by Bush 41 w/ the best of intentions. We all know w/ what the road to hell is paved. Unintended consequences must be expected w/ every piece of legislation signed.

  9. Another aspect of this is the ADA Lawsuit Trolling that goes on. For example, some websites have been sued for not making their websites accessible to the disabled public.

    I wonder if Jennifer could sue this blog for not providing her a counselor while she reads it??? Don’t laugh. I am being serious.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  10. Darren,

    Yes, and I think it also does a disservice to the student.
    She may get an RN degree and wind up being fired repeatedly until she ends up in a very unpleasant job or changing careers. Learning the hard way is slow and painful.

    I take care of young adults like this.
    Without going into detail, I can guess what is wrong; I have seen this many, many times before.
    The treatment is intensive and it works.
    The lawsuit won’t get her better, unfortunately, even if it gets her a diploma or some money.
    Just very sad all around.

    ” It does cause the employer to shoulder more of a burden of screening out applicants.
    Very true, thereby increasing health care costs to all.
    Having to create a new separate test and/or training slot (internship) will not be cheap.
    Then, one would have to ask: Of what use are the schools in the first place?

    My anger is mainly over how the adult role of preparing the young for the world is so eroded that we must allow her to believe that her special needs will continue to be accommodated like this ad nauseum, and that only malign forces are keeping her from her profession.

    It seems as if adults are trying to shield even young adults from the real world until the last possible second. This is unlikely to end well.

    Her problem is a failure to launch; an unearned degree won’t fix that.

  11. “The suit says a university counselor witnessed Burbella “breaking down and crying” when several calls to her professor went unanswered.

    Geez louise, I did not notice this before.
    She had a counselor at hand during the test.

    If a college exam makes Burbella cry, imagine what the state nursing boards will do to her.

    1. Will the state board exams also be required to offer her ‘reasonable accommodation’?

      1. SierraRose – since she has a diagnosed disability regarding testing, she might get accommodation on any state or national testing. They are already giving extra time to ADHD students taking the ACT and SAT.

    2. Pogo – there are some studies on crying. You ought to look them up.

    1. b – she graduated from the nursing school. Technically she is not a RN until she passed the national boards.

  12. “The question is how far a school must go to accommodate such disabilities, particularly in a stressful profession like nursing. ”

    That seems to be a reasonable question. But the relevance of that issue seems to be undermined because the Instructor/Institution failed to follow through on their offer to answer questions by phone.

    I have to wonder about the reasonableness of answering questions during the exam. But that seems to have been the offer and that seems to have been ignored by the instructor.

    I would argue the Institution has a hard case because of their failure to adhere to the test conditions they offered the student.

    “how far a school must go to accommodate such disabilities” has nothing to do with the dispute if the school makes an offer then reneges on the deal.

    1. bfm – agree with you 100%. The school is on the hook because they made the offer, she accepted, they did not deliver. It is contract law if nothing else.

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