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Long v. Howard University

September 5, 2007

DAVID T. LONG, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HOWARD UNIVERSITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff David Long, a former doctoral ("Ph.D.") candidate at Howard University, brought this action against the University alleging discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and breach of contract under District of Columbia law. A jury trial was held on plaintiff's Rehabilitation Act and contract claims from December 11-19, 2006, with one contract claim resolved by the Court in defendant's favor prior to jury deliberations. The jury returned a verdict finding that defendant had failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for plaintiff's disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act, but concluded that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations. The jury also found in defendant's favor on the remaining breach of contract claim.

Pending before the Court are plaintiff's motion for a new trial pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59, and defendant's cross-motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, for a new trial, on the issues decided adversely to defendant. Upon consideration of the entire record, the Court concludes that the jury was properly instructed on the statute of limitations, and that its verdict is supported by the evidence. Indeed, the Court's independent review of the evidence admitted at trial leads it to conclude that plaintiff's non-jury claims for equitable relief under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA for the alleged failure to provide a reasonable accommodation also are barred by the statute of limitations. Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 52, the Court sets forth its findings of fact and conclusions of law concerning those equitable claims below.

The Court further concludes that its earlier entry of judgment as a matter of law in defendant's favor on plaintiff's "educational" contract claim was appropriate in light of the absence of evidence from which a reasonable juror could find the contract alleged by plaintiff. Accordingly, plaintiff's motion will be denied, and a final judgment will be entered in defendant's favor on all remaining claims.*fn1 In light of that disposition, the Court has no occasion to reach the issues raised in defendant's cross-motion for judgment as a matter of law.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that "[a] new trial may be granted to all or any of the parties and on all or part of the issues (1) in an action in which there has been a trial by jury, for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." Under this provision, a new trial should be granted "only when the court is convinced that the jury verdict was a 'seriously erroneous result' and where denial of the motion will result in a 'clear miscarriage of justice.'" In re Lorazepam & Clorazepate Antitrust Litigation, 467 F. Supp. 2d 74, 87 (D.D.C. 2006) (quoting Warren v. Thompson, 224 F.R.D. 236, 239 (D.D.C. 2004)); accord Wild v. Alster, 377 F. Supp. 2d 186, 188 (D.D.C. 2005). "Generally, a new trial may only be granted when a manifest error of law or fact is presented." In re Lorazepam & Clorazepate Antitrust Litigation, 467 F. Supp. 2d at 87. Moreover, "the court should be mindful of the jury's special function in our legal system and hesitate to disturb its finding." Wild, 377 F. Supp. 2d at 189 (quoting Nyman v. FDIC, 967 F. Supp. 1562, 1569 (D.D.C. 1997)). The decision to grant or deny such a motion lies within the sound discretion of the trial court. Grogan v. Gen. Maint. Serv. Co., 763 F.2d 444, 448 (D.C. Cir. 1985).

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff entered the Ph.D. program in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics ("Department") at Howard University in the fall of 1982. See Pl.'s Ex. 5. He was formally admitted as a Ph.D. candidate in 1989, after completion of his coursework, completion of oral comprehensive examinations, and selection and approval of a topic for his dissertation. See id. By late 1990, plaintiff had substantially completed a draft of his dissertation. See Pl.'s Ex. 47. However, also by that time, he had been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that substantially diminished his lung function and thus his ability to be physically active.

See Preliminary Tr., Dec. 12, 2006, at 157-60, 167-69. Plaintiff thus requested and was granted a leave of absence, and did not return for the spring semester of 1991. See Pl.'s Ex. 13. In March 1992, plaintiff had discussions with Howard University about returning, but he did not reenroll at that time. See Official Tr., Dec. 13, 2006, Excerpt 1, at 33-35. Around the same time, he was pursuing a lawsuit against the University on a separate controversy concerning his lung disease, which was ultimately resolved pursuant to a settlement agreement between the parties.*fn2 See Official Tr., Dec. 13, 2006, Excerpt 1, at 33-34, 85, 120-21; Preliminary Tr., Dec. 14, 2006, at 73-75, 166.

Plaintiff contacted the University again in 1995 seeking to complete and defend his dissertation. See Pl.'s Ex. 20 and 25. By letter dated July 31, 1995, he submitted an "official request" to Dr. James Scott, the Associate Dean for Educational Affairs, and Dr. LaVal Cothran, Chairman of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, requesting reinstatement as a graduate student in the Department and permission to defend his dissertation, as he believed he and the Department had already agreed upon before his leave of absence commenced. See Pl.'s Ex. 20; see also Pl.'s Ex. 13; Official Tr., Dec. 13, 2006, Excerpt 1, at 31-33. That letter was preceded by discussions earlier in 1995, from which plaintiff had concluded there might be some resistance to his reinstatement. See Pl.'s Ex. 25. Indeed, in a subsequent letter to the University dated September 26, 1995, plaintiff described his requests to Dr. Coleman and Dr. Cothran during the preceding months as meeting significant resistance, noting that "the only choices that came out of those conversations were: there is nothing we can do for you; therefore, you can try to contact Dr. Scott concerning these matters or you can go ahead and contact your lawyer." Id. By letter dated November 21, 1995, Orlando Taylor, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, responded to plaintiff's request for reinstatement, advising plaintiff to apply for readmission and, further, that the University time limits on validity of academic credits (the "ten-year rule") and completion of degrees (the "five-year rule") would apply. Pl.'s Ex. 26. In particular, Dean Taylor stated:

Upon readmission, your status as a student in the Graduate School will have to be determined by the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. You should be aware that the Department will have to consider your status in light of provisions in the Rules and Regulations for the Pursuit of Academic Degrees for the Graduate School. (See enclosed copy.) Under Article VI, Section I.C, a student seeking a doctor of philosophy degree may not "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 the student's final examination." Under Article VI, Section 6, "[c]andidacy for the Ph.D. degree shall be valid for no more than five calendar years."

Finally, I am advised that while you presented a draft of your dissertation, a final version was never accepted by the faculty committee. Under Article VI, Section 9, acceptance of the dissertation by the faculty committee is required prior to the oral examination in defense of the dissertation outlined in Section 10.

Id. at 1-2.*fn3 Plaintiff does not recall receiving the letter, although the letter was correctly addressed. See Official Tr., Dec. 13, 2006, Excerpt 1, at 121-22.

About two years later, plaintiff and his wife sought action directly from the president of Howard University, Patrick Swygert, by visiting his office personally on January 20, 1998. See Pl.'s Ex. 29, at 1. Plaintiff was feeling unwell and remained in his vehicle, while his wife unsuccessfully sought out Swygert. Id. at 1. Swygert's staff referred Mrs. Long to an attorney for the University, but no recourse was provided. Id.

A few months thereafter, Dean Taylor sent plaintiff a letter dated April 30, 1998, that, on its face, indicates it was transmitted by facsimile. See Pl.'s Ex. 28. Dean Taylor informed plaintiff that the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences had reviewed the issue of restoration of his candidacy for a doctoral degree in Physiology. Id. at 1. Dean Taylor again did not offer plaintiff the accommodation he sought -- permission to return to defend his dissertation and then an award of the Ph.D. degree -- and instead advised him that the restoration of his candidacy would require satisfaction of additional conditions:

Since you were unable to complete the Ph.D. program within the time requirements as described in the School's "Rule and Regulations for the Pursuit of Academic Degrees" (copy enclosed), the Department of Physiology, pursuant to the aforementioned rules and regulations, is pleased to advise you that it will recommend that your candidacy be restored provided that the following conditions are satisfied:

1. That you pass a comprehensive examination on the core courses required in the Physiology Ph.D. program which demonstrate command over the essential body of knowledge in the field on the basis of present-day standards; and

2. After you have passed such examination, your dissertation committee in the Department of Physiology will undertake a review to determine whether your dissertation project has been rendered obsolete by the current state of the art in the area of your research;

a. if the project is determined to be current, then you will be permitted to begin working with the committee to bring the draft document into a form acceptable for oral defense.

b. if the project is determined not to be current, then you will have to submit an acceptable research proposal on a new project.

Upon successful completion of these conditions, the time requirements as described in Article VI, Section 1, paragraph C, will be waived and your candidacy would be restored. Thereafter, you could begin working toward the defense of your dissertation as governed by Article VI of the School's rules and regulations.

Id. Plaintiff also does not recall receiving this letter. Official Tr., Dec. 13, 2006, Excerpt 1, at 126. However, his subsequent letter to the president of the University describing the refusals to readmit him on the terms he sought suggests that he was aware of at least the 1995 or 1998 letter, or both. In that letter, dated June 14, 1999, plaintiff described his frustration at the refusals of other University officials to readmit him to defend his dissertation:

I have been trying to return to Howard University to complete my dissertation defense, as we agreed, but I keep running into these "brick walls."

When I begin to explain my situation to Deans, Administrators, etc., at Howard University, just as I have tried to do in this letter, they are very sympathetic at first and they immediately want to help. . . . . until they are informed of the medical lawsuit I brought against Howard on behalf of my wife and children. The University gave me permission to freeze my student status and the status of my dissertation defense but now Howard University seems to have "amnesia." I believe now, with every fiber of my being, that Howard University is treating me harshly because I brought that medical lawsuit against the University. Pl.'s Ex. 29, at 2-3.

The president of Howard University responded by letter dated July 9, 1999. Pl.'s Ex. 30. That response, in essence, echoed the requirements set forth in the 1995 and 1998 letters --plaintiff would be required to reapply for admission, and his status upon readmission would be determined by the Department in light of the Rules and Regulations for the Pursuit of Academic Degrees for the Graduate School, including prior approval of the dissertation by the faculty committee before any oral examination by plaintiff defending it. Id.

In October 1999, plaintiff submitted a formal application for readmission (Pl.'s Ex. 31), and the Department of Physiology's Graduate Training Committee internally made a decision to accept him to its Graduate Training Program on February 24, 2000, conditioned upon plaintiff's compliance with the University's rules and regulations, which it noted would require plaintiff to take all of the courses that had expired. See Pl.'s Ex. 36. This decision was not communicated to plaintiff. See Official Tr., Dec. 13, 2006, Excerpt 1, at 61. Plaintiff then submitted another application for readmission in July 2001, and exchanged correspondence with the University on the status of this application. Pl.'s Ex. 33, 38-41.

On July 9, 2002, plaintiff filed this action against the University, asserting the following claims: first, that the University had failed to make a reasonable accommodation of plaintiff's disability and also had imposed discriminatory screening criteria through temporal requirements for completion of the doctoral degree, in violation of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act (Counts One and Two); second, that the University had breached two contracts -- one being a promise to award plaintiff a degree upon his successful completion of the requirements for the degree, and the second being an agreement to permit plaintiff to re-enter the University and defend his dissertation when he was physically able (Count Three); and third, that the University had caused him severe emotional distress and resulting damages under District of Columbia law (Counts Four through Six). See Compl. ¶¶ 18-48. During the pendency of this litigation, the Department's Graduate Committee again decided in February 2004 to accept plaintiff "as a regular student," with the observation that all of his coursework and Ph.D. candidacy had expired. Pl.'s Ex. 37 (emphasis in original). By letter dated March 9, 2004, Dean Taylor informed plaintiff that, in light of the passage of so many years since plaintiff's departure, plaintiff's request for readmission would be denied, and that the offer of conditional reinstatement that the University had made six years earlier in its April 1998 letter was no longer viable. See Def.'s Ex. 27.

After four years of contentious discovery and the resolution of plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment, plaintiff's claims were scheduled to proceed to trial in December 2006.*fn4 At the final pretrial conference on December 1, 2006, the Court expressed concern about whether plaintiff's claims may be barred by a three-year statute of limitations, in the context of addressing defendant's motion in limine to exclude evidence relating to any alleged violation of the ADA or Rehabilitation Act prior to July 9, 1999. See Official Tr., Dec. 1, 2006, at 42-50; see also Pretrial Order at 4 (filed Dec. 1, 2006). The Court denied defendant's motion because it was, in effect, a late-filed motion for summary judgment that, for procedural reasons, could not be resolved on the merits in the absence of a motion for extension of time in light of Smith v. District of Columbia, 430 F.3d 450, 456-57 (D.C. Cir. 2005). However the Court advised counsel that it considered the statute of limitations to present a serious issue, and thus the Court would consider the issue after presentation of plaintiff's case.*fn5 Official Tr., Dec. 1, 2006, at 44-47. The Court also rejected plaintiff's contention that defendant had waived the statute of limitations defense by not pursuing it in discovery, explaining that the assertion of the defense in defendant's answer preserved it for trial. Official Tr., Dec. 1, 2006, at 44-46.

Other motions then arose prior to the commencement of trial. After reviewing plaintiff's evidentiary proffer in support of its tort claims under District of Columbia law (Counts Four through Six of the complaint), the Court entered judgment in favor of defendant, finding the evidence (accepted as true) to be insufficient as a matter of law to support a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress and the intertwined claims for loss or consortium and punitive damages that were premised on that tort. See Order at 3-7 (filed Dec. 7, 2006). The Court also held that plaintiff was not entitled to a jury trial on his claim under Title III of the ADA because the enforcement provision of Title III, 42 U.S.C. § 2000a-3(a), did not create such a right, nor could one be found in the Constitution under the Seventh Amendment. See Preliminary Tr., Dec. 11, 1006, at 2-4. The Court thus advised the parties that plaintiff's ADA claims would be resolved by the Court, rather than the jury. Id. The Court later reminded the parties that any request for equitable relief under the Rehabilitation Act also would be resolved by the Court, rather than the jury. Official Tr., Dec. 18, 2006, at 124-25. The impact of this ruling means that the Court must determine, on its own, whether plaintiff's claims for equitable relief under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act are barred by the statute of limitations -- a task which the Court undertakes below.

At the close of plaintiff's case, the Court dismissed plaintiff's claim alleging that the temporal requirements for completion of the doctoral degree screen out and disproportionately impact individuals with disabilities in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and ADA. Official Tr., Dec. 18, 2006, at 17-22. The Court found, and plaintiff conceded, that no evidence of a disproportionate impact on disabled persons had been presented. Id. Thus, the Court granted defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50 and 52(c). Id. at 22.

The Court also dismissed plaintiff's claim that the University had breached an "educational contract" that plaintiff described as an agreement to provide reasonable modifications to University academic requirements to ensure the requirements do not result in discrimination on the basis of disability -- that is, an agreement to comply with federal disability law. See Pl.'s Proposed Jury Instruction No. 14 (filed Nov. 3, 2006). As plaintiff describes the educational contract claim, "[i]t's basically the same as the Rehabilitation Act claim." Official Tr., Dec. 18, 2006, at 59-60. The Court found that no evidence had been presented -- either through testimony or exhibits -- as to what the terms of the "educational contract" were, and that the failure of proof could not be cured by a blanket reference to federal law as setting the terms of the alleged contract. Id. at 119-21. The Court explained that its ruling was further supported by plaintiff's failure to provide adequate notice to defendant -- either in the complaint or through discovery --that its breach of contract claim encompassed a breach of an educational contract premised on breach of federal law governing reasonable accommodation. Id, at 119-20. Thus, the Court granted defendant's motion for judgment as a ...


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