Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
750 F.3d 596, April 28, 2014
Keywords: higher education, discrimination, Title I of the ADA, Title II of the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
Summary: The Sixth Circuit determined that a student with Crohn’s disease, whose application to graduate school was rejected, submitted sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to determine that she was rejected because of her disability, and to find that the school denied her admission because of her Crohn’s disease.
Caitlin Sjöstrand, an applicant to the Ohio State University (OSU) Ph.D program in School Psychology, sued the school for violations of Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Sjöstrand has Crohn’s disease and alleged that OSU discriminated against her in violation of the ADA and Section 504 by refusing to admit her because of her disability.
Sjöstrand completed her undergraduate degree at OSU, where she graduated magna cum laude with a 3.87 G.P.A. After graduation she applied to OSU’s graduate school. Of the seven applicants to the program, Sjöstrand tied for the highest G.P.A. and her combined score of an 1100 on the GRE exceeded the program’s requirements. Yet, she was the only applicant OSU failed to admit.
As part of the admission process, Sjöstrand had to complete two interviews, one with the program’s head, Professor Laurice Joseph, and another with an assistant professor in the program, Kisha Radliff. Sjöstrand testified that her interviewers spent half of their respective interviews asking questions about her Crohn’s disease. Six days after her interviews, an admissions officer sent her a rejection letter stating she would not be accepted because she “did not fit the program. ” Sjöstrand further testified that she attempted to contact Professor Joseph over the next two weeks to gain a better understanding of what she could do to be a better fit, and when the program head finally returned her call, Professor Joseph simply reiterated that Sjöstrand was not a good fit.
Several days later Professor Joseph drafted an email outlining five reasons for OSU’s rejection of Sjöstrand. These reasons included a belief that she would do better in counseling than psychology based on her written responses and a failure to identify and demonstrate her alignment with the program’s mission. These proffered reasons for her rejection then were compiled in a letter and sent to Sjöstrand.
The application to the Ph.D program, however, did not include any question with respect to its mission. Further, neither of her interviewers questioned her about her written responses that supposedly led to the inference that she was better suited for counseling. Sjöstrand’s receipt of the letter almost a month after her rejection is the first time she heard these explanations.
Title II of the ADA prohibits the exclusion of any qualified individual with a disability from the programs of a public entity. As a state school, OSU is a public entity. Discrimination claims under the ADA proceed under Title I in the employment context. Although this was not an employment case, the district court applied the burden-shifting analysis often used in Title I and Section 504 discrimination claims. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that doing so was proper.
Considering the motion for summary judgment, the district court had to determine whether any issues of material fact existed that should go before a jury. All facts presented and any reasonable inferences that could be made were considered in a light most favorable to Sjöstrand. The district court granted OSU’s motion for summary judgment based on a finding that Sjöstrand failed to present evidence that would enable a reasonable jury to find that the school denied her admission because of her disability. The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s holding and ruled that Sjöstrand produced ample evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find that the school denied her admission because of her Crohn’s disease.
The analysis of discrimination claims under Title I of the ADA and Section 504 are almost identical. A plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination by showing she has a disability, is an otherwise qualified individual, and suffered discrimination by reason of her disability. The only difference between discrimination claims under the two laws is that under the ADA a plaintiff must prove discrimination “by reason of” a disability and under Section 504 “solely” because of a disability. The Sixth Circuit applied the ADA analysis to both the ADA and Section 504 claims.
OSU conceded that Sjöstrand was an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, and only disputed that her application was rejected because of her Crohn’s disease. Therefore the court’s analysis only addressed this third element of a prima facie case.
The Court considered the content of Sjöstrand’s interviews and the lack of discussion regarding any of the reasons for her dismissal cited in the final letter she received from the school. Additionally, the Court noted Professor Joseph’s delay in responding to Sjöstrand and her evasive demeanor when she contacted her. Finally, the Court considered Sjöstrand’s GPA, GRE scores, and written application in comparison to the other six applicants that the school accepted. Based on this evidence, the Court found that a reasonable jury could determine that Sjöstrand was rejected because of her disability.
After the Sixth Circuit found that Sjöstrand made a prima facie case for discrimination, it proceeded to the next step in the burden-shifting analysis. If a prima facie case of discrimination is made, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove its actions were not discriminatory. If that is demonstrated, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to produce evidence that the defendant’s offered rationale was not the real reason for its actions.
The Court found that the school put forth sufficient evidence to meet its burden with the explanation it gave Sjöstrand in the final letter she received from OSU before filing suit. The court then had to determine whether the evidence Sjöstrand presented would be able to overcome the school’s explanations for rejecting her. The court found that her evidence was not mere speculation and that a reasonable jury could determine from the evidence she put forth that OSU rejected her application because of her Crohn’s disease instead of the reasons given by OSU.
The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s holding and ruled that Sjöstrand produced evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find that the school denied her admission because of her Crohn’s disease. The case was remanded for additional proceedings consistent with the opinion.
Discrimination is often difficult to prove. The perpetrator is not likely to admit to discriminating against another, and the likelihood of finding a “smoking gun” that proves the allegation is quite small. The dissenting judge in this opinion found that Sjöstrand’s claims were based on conjecture and speculation.
However, by holding as it did, the Sixth Circuit demonstrated that the burden-shifting analysis used by the court in these types of cases under the ADA and Section 504 can help overcome the inherent difficulty in proving a discrimination claim. Here, even with directly contradictory testimony, the court was able to infer from Sjöstrand’s testimony about her interviews, review of her qualifications, and the actions of Professor Joseph that Sjöstrand was not accepted into the program because of a discriminatory perspective about her Crohn’s disease. Additionally, the Court’s ruling implicitly gives jurors permission to rely on this type of circumstantial evidence when making a decision in these cases.