The case is Dean v. University of Buffalo School of Medicine, decided on October 6. The school required students to pass certain tests, including the Step 1 examination, in order to proceed to the next academic level. You get three chances in one year to pass the Step 1 examination. After Dean twice failed the test, he suffered increased symptoms of depression, which made it difficult to prepare for the test. As he was undergoing treatment, plaintiff requested an extended leave of absence, which would have put off his third testing attempt. The school granted plaintiff several extended leaves so he could complete his treatment. As the examination grew closer, while progressing in his recovery, plaintiff requested an additional brief recovery period that would further put off the examination. That request was denied, and plaintiff was dismissed from the program altogether. The lawsuit claims the school denied plaintiff a reasonable accommodation in denying him the additional leave time.
The Court of Appeals (Pooler, Winter and Sack) says plaintiff can prevail at trial. Here is how the parties frame the issues:
On appeal, Dean contends that Defendants failed to provide a reasonable accommodation because he should have been afforded an interval of leave sufficient to allow the prescribed medication to take effect and for Dean to thereafter prepare for a final attempt at the Step 1 exam. Defendants respond that Dean sought medical leave solely for the purpose of undergoing treatment for depression and did not specifically request additional study time prior to the Step 1 retake. Thus, in ultimately supplying Dean a more generous leave period than purportedly requested by Dean and recommended by his physicians, Defendants assert they provided a reasonable accommodation.Plaintiff sought "a period some five to seven weeks longer than necessary for the medication to become effective," the jury could find that he made this request to prepare for the test. Yet, the school did give him an accommodation: approximately 10 weeks from May through July 2007. Was this enough under the ADA?
The Court notes that "the hallmark of a reasonable accommodation is effectiveness." While the school says it had given plaintiff two extended leaves prior to any reported mental health condition and that extra study time was unnecessary, the Court looks at the reality of test preparation: "We harbor serious doubt that earlier periods of study suffice to prepare a student for a later examination, particularly when the student twice failed that very exam." Moreover, the school had a policy of allowing students six to eight weeks of exam preparation prior to each attempt to pass the test. "While it is unclear how many days or weeks Dean spent effectively studying after beginning pharmacological treatment, by any measure Dean’s period of preparation time in late July 2007 did not span the six to eight weeks allegedly afforded, as a matter of school policy, to medical students who had also failed two prior attempts at the Step 1 exam. Given this policy, a juror could reasonably infer that the abbreviated study period encompassed within Dean’s leave would not have been effective." This evidence gives plaintiff a prima facie case of discrimination. "That students are ordinarily afforded six to eight weeks of study time prior to each attempt at Step 1 ... suggests that Dean’s leave request was a plausible modification of UBMED’s policies."
In light of the prima face case, the school has to show that requested modification would impose undue financial or administrative burdens on the school or fundamentally alter the academic program. The record is devoid of any evidence indicating whether the school evaluated these considerations in determining the reasonableness of plaintiff's requested accommodations. While the courts do not like the second-guess academic judgments, it does not intrude on those judgments in this case where the school has adduced no evidence as to the basis for denying plaintiff's requested modification to the examination schedule.