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Long v. Howard University

July 17, 2006

DAVID T. LONG, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
HOWARD UNIVERSITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment in this disability-discrimination action asks the Court to conclude that it was unreasonable as a matter of law for defendant Howard University to refuse to relax certain doctoral degree requirements as an accommodation for limitations caused by a student's medical condition. The motion further seeks a finding that defendant's refusal to do so constituted an unjustified breach of its contractual obligations to the student. Because the Court cannot reach either conclusion without resolving genuine factual disputes, it will deny plaintiffs' motion.

BACKGROUND

In September 1982, plaintiff David Long entered the doctoral (or "Ph.D.") program in physiology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Pls.' Stmt. of Undisputed Material Facts (hereinafter "Pls.' Stmt.") ¶ 2; Def.'s Stmt. of Material Facts (hereinafter "Def.'s Stmt.") ¶ 60. By November 1985, Long had completed the seventy-two credit hours of graduate-level coursework that he needed for the degree, had passed the requisite written tests for those courses, and had successfully finished his oral comprehensive examination -- thereby becoming eligible for Ph.D. candidacy. See Pls.' Stmt. ¶ 2; Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 14, 64, 67-68. Once eligible for candidacy, Long still needed to obtain approval from the Department of Physiology and Biophysics for a research proposal and then needed to conduct the research, produce a written dissertation on the approved research topic, and defend the dissertation before a faculty committee. See Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 30, 32-33, 40-43. Long received approval in May 1989 for his proposed research on "Hormonal Regulation of Pepsinogen Secretion," and in November 1989 -- four years after completing his coursework and seven years after he first entered the Ph.D. program -- he was formally admitted as a Ph.D. candidate. Pls.' Stmt ¶ 3; Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 73-74.

Howard maintains several time-to-degree policies for its doctoral programs. A Ph.D. candidacy at Howard is valid for only five years, Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 34, and the school further imposes a course-viability rule, which treats as expired any course credit that was earned more than seven years prior to the student's dissertation defense, id. at ¶¶ 18-19. The course-viability rule, however, is subject to an exception whereby a student may, with approval from his department's faculty chairman, seek to "restore" credit for courses taken more than seven years (but less than ten years) prior to his dissertation defense. Course restoration can be accomplished by retaking the class, by passing an exam in the field in which the course falls, or by writing a paper on the subject. Id. at ¶¶ 19-20, 23-24. According to Howard's academic rules for graduate programs, "[u]nder no circumstances ... [will] a student receive credit toward the degree for a course which the student pursued more than ten (10) years prior to the time the student presents himself or herself for ... final examination." Id. at ¶ 24. The course-viability and course-restoration rules are intended to ensure that Ph.D. candidates "possess[] current knowledge in the field." Id. at ¶ 21.

By the time Long's Ph.D. candidacy had commenced in November 1989, the courses he had taken in his first semester of the program were about to expire under the seven-year course-viability rule, and the remainder of his course credits were due to expire within three years (at which point his earliest courses would begin to lose their eligibility for restoration). In short, even with the benefit of the course-restoration rule, Long needed to complete and defend his dissertation by the end of 1992 in order to avoid having to repeat at least some coursework (notwithstanding that the Ph.D. candidacy itself was valid through November 1994).

Sometime in 1990, within a few months of Long's formal acceptance as a Ph.D. candidate, Long was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a respiratory ailment that permanently diminishes lung function and, as a result, impairs physical activity. See Pls.' Stmt. ¶ 4. Long first informed Howard of his illness in July 1990, through a letter from his treating physician to the then-chairman of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, Laval Cothran. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 78. The letter stated that Long had a lung disease, that he was responding to medication, and that he would return to the department "shortly." Id. Long did resume his research and writing activities in 1990, and in October of that year Long submitted a draft of his dissertation to his adviser, George Littleton, who reviewed the document and gave Long suggestions for revisions. Id. at ¶ 79.

Several months later, in January 1991, Long informed Howard that his illness had worsened. Id. at ¶ 80. In response, the director of graduate studies, Felix Grissom, recommended to Long that he take a leave of absence for the spring semester. Id. at ¶ 81.*fn1 The parties disagree about precisely what conditions, if any, Howard imposed on Long with respect to the leave, but Howard asserts that it expected Long would return to the doctoral program in the summer or fall of 1991. Compare id. at ¶ 81-83 ("Dr. Cothran stated that Long 'indicated [that] he thought he could come back either in the summer or in the fall.'") with Pls.' Stmt. ¶ 6 ("Cothran agreed to an open-ended medical leave of absence for Long and placed no time limit on when he could return. It was agreed that Mr. Long would be able to return at the same student status and complete his program from the point where he left off.") (internal citations omitted).

On February 25, 1992, Long wrote to Dr. Cothran, the department chairman, to express his desire to return to the Ph.D. program that semester in order to complete and defend his dissertation. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 84.*fn2 In response, Dr. Cothran set up a meeting for March 6, 1992, at which he, Long, Dr. Littleton, and another faculty member discussed Long's intentions to resume his studies. Id. at ¶ 86. Howard contends that the professors informed Long at this meeting that "he needed to finalize his draft dissertation with the advice and consent of his [adviser], present the dissertation to the committee, and obtain a date for his oral defense of his dissertation." Id. The professors also told Long that he had to do some additional research, but Dr. Littleton subsequently agreed to waive that requirement, even though Long "did not conclude [the] research to [Littleton's] satisfaction," because Littleton did not want to "be punitive against somebody who was alleging to be suffering from ... an invasive illness." Def.'s Opp'n, Ex. 19 at 42, ll. 8-15; Def's Stmt. ¶¶ 86-87. The parties nevertheless disagree about how much additional work Long needed to do before the dissertation would be suitable for final submission and oral defense. Compare Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 89-90 ("According to Dr. Cothran, Long's March 1992 draft dissertation was incomplete. The first five pages of the document were missing and no data was in the dissertation. ... The Physiology and Biophysics Department expected that Long would be done with his dissertation 'within a few months.'") with Pls.' Stmt. ¶ 9 ("Long's dissertation merely had to be typed into the proper format, incorporating the handwritten revisions penciled in by Dr. Littleton.").

Following the March 1992 meeting, another three years passed before Long again contacted Howard (in mid-1995) about returning to complete and defend the dissertation. In the interim, Long's Ph.D. candidacy had lapsed and all of Long's credits for his core courses had expired and were no longer eligible for restoration pursuant to Howard's ten-year rule. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 94, 119. From July 1995 through September 1995, Long sent letters to various academic officials at Howard requesting reinstatement as a graduate student and an opportunity to defend his dissertation. Pls.' Stmt. ¶ 16-17. At least one of these letters asserted that Long was disabled, but Howard contends that Long did not specifically request any particular accommodation for his disability. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 99. In November 1995, Long received a letter from the dean's office informing him that, if he wanted to pursue his Ph.D., he would have to reapply and, if accepted, would likely have to retake all of the required courses. Id. at ¶ 100.

Another two-plus years passed without communication between Long and Howard. Long did not submit an application for readmission between 1995 and 1998 and did not perform any research or academic study during that period. Id. at ¶ 102. For reasons not apparent in the record, Howard's dean wrote to Long in April 1998 to inform Long that he could be reinstated as a Ph.D. candidate if he agreed to retake the comprehensive exams on core courses and submit his dissertation draft to the department committee so that it could evaluate whether his topic and research were still current. Id. at ¶ 103. If the committee found that the dissertation was still current, then Long would be allowed to pick up where he left off with the dissertation; if the department determined that the paper was obsolete, then Long would have to submit a new proposal. Id. Long never responded directly to that offer. Id. at ¶ 106.

In June 1999, Long wrote to Howard's president and asked him to intercede by granting Long unconditional readmission as a disability-based accommodation. Id. at ¶ 108. The president declined to make any further exceptions to the school's academic policies and invited Long to reapply. Id. at ¶ 109. In November 1999, Long submitted a formal application for readmission, and Howard accepted him to the physiology doctoral program in February 2000, conditioned upon Long retaking all of the core course that had expired. Id. at ¶ 112. The Physiology and Biophysics Department insisted that Long would have to start over, not only because it believed the course-viability rules generally served an important purpose, but also because, in this particular instance, there had been a substantial transformation in the field of physiology since Long's tenure as a student. Research techniques had undergone "a big change" during that time, and "the body of knowledge had so drastically changed" -- shifting in the mid-1990s from a pedagogical approach that focused on organ systems to one that emphasized cellular and molecular science -- that allowing Long to take equivalency exams "would not guarantee currency of knowledge." See id. at ¶¶ 113-14. Long, however, did not receive notification of the conditional acceptance because of an "administrative error and [a] change in staff in the Office of the Graduate School of Arts." Id. at ¶ 116.

On July 9, 2002, plaintiffs filed this civil action, which accuses Howard of (1) violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a), based on its refusal to permit Long to return to the Ph.D. program without penalty for his absence; (2) violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a), based on the same conduct; (3) breach of contract; (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (5) loss of consortium by Long's wife, Karen Long. Following more than three years of discovery, on February 17, 2006, plaintiffs filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the disability-discrimination and ...


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