Insert Colker and Grossman, Higher Education at p. 57 before box and p. 204 before the first NOTE . Academic Deference and Qualification Walsh v. University of Pittsburgh, Civil Action No. 13-00189, (W.D. Penn. 2015), 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2563, 2015 WL 128104 - courts/pennsylvania/pawdce/2:2013cv00189/208081/63 (last viewed, June 22, 2015). Although only a district court opinion, this decision is helpful for laying out the analytical structure for several types of allegations. Amy Walsh is an individual with a BS in nursing. She enrolled in a Masters degree program in anesthesia. While in the program, she performed well in the classroom but encountered difficulties in the clinical rotation stages. The student alleged that in her first rotation it became necessary to tell one of her instructors that breast cancer surgery had resulted in weakness, reduced range of motion, and stiffness in one of her arms. According to Walsh, her instructors subsequently began stating that she would be unable to perform essential skills because of her limitations. Her complaints about this treatment got little response. At the second site for rotation, Walsh was placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP). The student alleged that this PIP was required because staff from the first rotation Page | 4
site had told the second site that she was incompetent. She complained again about her treatment without receiving an effective response. In the third rotation, on the same day, Walsh made two “dangerous or potentially dangerous,” errors in administering medication. Following three levels of due process review, she was dismissed from the anesthesia program. Subsequent to her dismissal the student sued the University. The Federal District court considered three claims: disparate treatment and a hostile environment on the basis of disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA, as well as breach of contract. The University of Pittsburgh did not contest that the student was an individual with a disability but moved for summary judgment on the grounds that she was not qualified to complete the program. Of interest is the distinction drawn by the court with regard to the question of academic deference. Much deference was accorded on the breach of contract claim, little on the disability discrimination claims. With regard to the breach of contract claim, the court articulated the question before it as, “[Whether] the decision to dismiss [the student] was rational and had a reasonable basis in fact.” The court stated: [W]hen judges are asked to review the substance of a genuinely academic decision ... they should show great respect for the faculty's professional judgment. Plainly, they may not override it unless it is such a substantial departure from accepted academic norms as to demonstrate that the person or committee responsible did not actually exercise professional judgment.
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