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Schuler v. University of Denver

United States District Court, D. Colorado

October 1, 2014



RICHARD P. MATSCH, Senior District Judge.

Plaintiff Stephen Schuler has two claims remaining against Defendant University of Denver ("DU"): disability discrimination and retaliation under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 and 34 C.F.R. § 100.7(e). DU has moved for summary judgment on those claims. The following facts are material and are not in genuine dispute unless otherwise stated.

Schuler was diagnosed with insomnia, anxiety disorder, and depression when he was 16 years old. Schuler was also diagnosed with attention deficit disorder in 2009. [Doc. 39, Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ("SOF") ¶ 3-4.]

Schuler obtained his GED in 2005 and enrolled in Metropolitan State University of Denver ("Metro") that year. He began attending DU's Daniels College of Business ("DCB") as a Finance/Real Estate major in the Fall Quarter of 2007. Schuler lived in student housing while attending DU and he paid for his tuition and housing with a combination of student loans and scholarships. [Id. ¶¶ 5, 7-8.]

Upon enrolling, Schuler requested disability accommodations from DU by submitting a letter from Dr. Kevin Cowperthwaite, the psychiatrist who treated Schuler while he attended Metro, and speaking to Michele McCandless, Associate Director of DU's Disability Services Program ("DSP"). The requested accommodations included quiet test-taking conditions, clear written instructions, time extensions for tests, occasional extensions on course work, occasional class excuses, and a private dorm room. DU approved Schuler's initial requests. DSP provided Schuler with a letter he could give to his instructors that described the accommodations to which he was entitled. The letter also advised instructors that any information about Schuler's disabilities was confidential and encouraged instructors to contact DSP if they had any questions. In almost every class Schuler took at DU, the DSP assisted him in obtaining accommodations. Schuler worked with Lisken Seader, a DSP Disabilities Specialist, on several occasions to request and obtain accommodations. [Id. ¶¶ 9-15.][1]

In Fall Quarter 2008, Schuler switched his major to Accounting and started taking classes in DU's School of Accountancy. Schuler took Intermediate Accounting 1 with Professor Darius Fatemi that quarter. Schuler requested and received his documented test-taking accommodations of a reduced distraction environment, clear instructions, and extended time. Schuler also worked directly with Fatemi on a public speaking accommodation, even though Schuler did not provide Fatemi documentation for his request. Fatemi granted the accommodation and permitted Schuler to create a PowerPoint presentation instead of giving an oral presentation to the class. Fatemi later saw Schuler give an oral presentation in another class. The parties dispute how Fatemi reacted; Schuler claims Fatemi yelled at him, which Fatemi denies. Fatemi subsequently removed a second public speaking assignment from the course syllabus. [Id. ¶¶ 19-25.]

At the end of Fall Quarter 2008, Schuler had a panic attack while taking a final exam in his Core 1 Fundamentals of Accounting class with Professor David Honodel. Schuler told DSP about the panic attack after the exam, and he asked to retake it as an accommodation. DSP approved Schuler's request. Schuler successfully completed the course. [Id. ¶¶ 16-18.]

In Winter Quarter 2009, Schuler took Cost Management with Professor Honodel. Schuler withdrew from the class before completing it. [See Doc. 53, Ex. 15.] On April 20, 2009, Schuler filed a Complaint against DU with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights ("OCR") based on Professor Honodel's alleged failure to provide Schuler accommodations in the class. The OCR and DU entered into a Resolution Agreement on July 7, 2009, under which DU agreed to allow Schuler to retake Cost Management with a different professor, send Schuler a letter apologizing for Honodel's conduct, and train School of Accountancy professors on their legal obligations to students with disabilities. [Doc. 53, Ex. 7.] DU satisfied those requirements. [SOF ¶¶ 27-30.]

Kathleen Davisson, a professor and an Assistant Director of the School of Accountancy, was involved in coordinating scholarship distribution for students in the School of Accountancy during the first part of Schuler's tenure at DU. Professor Davisson worked with a committee to determine the best way to allocate scholarship funds to apply them to as many students as possible. Donors like to see their funds being used, and if they are not used, they will often stop providing scholarship funding. [Id. ¶¶ 32-33.][2]

The J.J. Johnston Scholarship was awarded through the DCB. Half of the scholarship's funds are allocated for School of Accountancy students and the other half are for students in DCB. During the time Schuler attended DU, the criteria for the J.J. Johnston Scholarship was broad and flexible; it was awarded to students who were "deserving." A student did not need to have financial need or meet particular academic requirements to qualify for the scholarship. [Id. ¶¶ 34-35.][3] Schuler received $1, 000 per quarter from the J.J. Johnston Scholarship from Fall Quarter 2007 through Spring Quarter 2009. [Id. ¶ 36.]

While the School of Accountancy committee was deciding how to allocate funds for the 2009-2010 school year, the Dean's Office noticed that Schuler qualified for a scholarship from the Brandenborg Endowment Fund Scholarship, which was reserved for students with high financial needs. Professor Davisson approved converting Schuler's J.J. Johnston Scholarship to a Brandenborg Scholarship for the 2009-2010 year because, by moving to a fund with more restrictive requirements, additional aid was available to other students under the J.J. Johnston Scholarship. The scholarship committee frequently moves students to different scholarships to maximize use of the funds and provide aid to as many students as possible. Davisson stated in her affidavit that she did not convert Schuler's scholarship to penalize or retaliate against him in any way. [Id. ¶¶ 37-39.][4] Schuler received $1, 333.36 per quarter under the Brandenborg Endowment Fund Scholarship, as opposed to $1, 000 per quarter under the J.J. Johnston Scholarship. [Id. ¶ 40.]

Schuler filed another OCR Complaint sometime in early 2010, based on Professor Davisson's alleged "cancellation" of his J.J. Johnston Scholarship. DU and Schuler signed an Early Complaint Resolution Agreement on February 16, 2010, in which Davisson agreed to explain why she approved converting his J.J. Johnston scholarship. [Id. ¶¶ 41-42.]

On Friday, February 5, 2010, Schuler emailed Liskin Seader and Michele McCandless of DSP asking them to notify a professor he would not be attending class for the public speaking assignment that coming Monday. Schuler claimed he could not complete the assignment because he did not want to "have a problem with [his] heart[.]" [Id. ¶¶ 44-45.] Seader replied that DSP would notify Schuler's instructor of his absence, noted that Schuler had recently missed "more than a couple of classes" due to health issues, and stated:

If your health/medical management issues are impacting you at a level that regularly prevents you from attending class I wonder if you might want to consider taking a medical stop out. Please understand that I am not "recommending" that you do it but only suggesting that you might want to consider that as an option. If you need more information regarding the medical stop-out please let me know. I would be glad to assist you with the process.

[Doc. 39, Ex. P at 3.] A stop-out allows a student to withdraw from DU for a variety of reasons and receive a tuition refund for the quarter. A stop-out can be taken when a student is having medical issues. A medical stop-out request must be supported by appropriate medical documentation. [SOF ¶ 47.]

Ten days later, Schuler requested a medical stop-out from DU's Office of the Registrar for Winter Quarter 2010. The Withdrawal Form Schuler signed stated:

I understand that my withdrawing from the University will affect my eligibility to remain in student housing, to use campus facilities, and to retain health insurance benefits. My current and future financial aid awards will be affected and I may be liable for tuition owed as a result of the return of financial aid funds.

[Doc. 39, Ex. R.][5] Schuler submitted a letter from his psychiatrist, Dr. Neil Weiss, who stated that he believed a withdrawal was medically necessary because Schuler's medical conditions were disrupting his school work. Jo Calhoun, Associate Provost of Academic Resources at DU, approved Schuler's request for a medical stop-out on March 1, 2010. DU refunded Schuler's tuition for Winter Quarter 2010. [SOF ¶¶ 51-53.]

In March 2010, Schuler submitted a letter from Dr. Weiss stating that Schuler was able to return to school full-time and was not on any medications that would interfere with his schoolwork. DU approved Schuler to return to school for Spring Quarter 2010 two days after receiving Weiss' letter. When Schuler returned to school, he did not have any problems with his financial aid and ...

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