Diverse Docket: RPI Prevails in Suit by Disabled Former Ph.D. Candidate - Higher Education
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Diverse Docket: RPI Prevails in Suit by Disabled Former Ph.D. Candidate

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by Eric Freedman

David Hurd

U.S. District Judge David Hurd dismissed all claims against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., has won a disability discrimination suit by a former Ph.D. student who failed his doctoral candidacy exam and never qualified for readmission to the program.

A federal judge said RPI’s handling of the student “is certainly not a model for other schools” but held that Joseph McInerney didn’t prove the university had denied him an opportunity to participate in its programs and activities.

In 2000, a year before starting the mechanical engineering program, McInerney suffered a brain infection that caused a stroke and permanent brain damage, the decision said. When he enrolled at RPI, he requested disability accommodations, including additional time to take exams.

Once in the program, he had conflicts with his thesis adviser, who found him difficult to work with, and a replacement was named.

During his doctoral candidacy exam in 2003, McInerney didn’t ask for any breaks or tell the examiners that he was suffering from fatigue or other disability-related symptoms. He failed the exam and didn’t resolve the deficiencies or retake it, the decision said.

He took a leave of absence and terminated his relationship with the second adviser.

When McInerney sought to reactivate his student status in 2007, he didn’t propose a new thesis topic as required and declined to work with the only two faculty members with the expertise to supervise his research.

His suit alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act and sought reinstatement in the doctoral program, damages and accommodations to complete his education.

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After a seven-day nonjury trial, U.S. District Judge David Hurd dismissed all claims.

He noted that the university gave McInerney extended time to take exams and tailored his oral department qualifying exam to accommodate his needs.

“It is clear that he was difficult to work with and was not well liked by some at RPI,” the decision said. “As a result, his interactions with professors and administrators were likely more strained than those of other students.”

Even so, Hurd said, “RPI was not required to accommodate McInerney’s every preference. It was not required to expand its faculty or make adjustments to its policies, particularly after it determined that he was not meeting its academic requirements.”

Judge Backs Molloy College

An African-American graduate student who failed her last nursing course after being accused of academic dishonesty has lost her discrimination and retaliation case against Molloy College in Rockville Centre, N.Y.

U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley agreed with the college that Joyce Peters had not offered enough evidence to support the allegations.

Peters’ master’s program included a mandatory research course.

The professor rejected her final research proposal on the basis of plagiarism and improperly cited direct quotations from previously published papers. A Turnitin.com analysis found a 19 percent overall similarity index, the court decision said. In addition, the college determined that the proposal included “fabricated data and statistical analysis.”

Peters did not follow the college’s grade appeal and student handbook process, according to the college.

The lawsuit accused Molloy of intentional discrimination, claiming that the college had granted an exception to its policies and procedures for a White graduate student who failed to fully comply with course policy for clinical placement credits.

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But Hurley found that Peters didn’t show that the college’s explanation for her own failing grade was a pretext for discrimination.

“Moreover, any pretext argument is undermined by the fact that she received four high grades” from the same professor in the course “prior to receiving the failing grade on her final research proposal paper,” he wrote in the decision.

Parker also alleged that the college illegally retaliated against her for complaining to the campus president about race-based discrimination against an African-American professor.

However, the judge said her letter to the president made no mention or even implication of any racially biased behavior by anybody at the college.

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