Lack of a clear reason for rejecting PhD candidate leaves OSU in hot water

The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed a federal district court's ruling in a disability discrimination case, finding that whether The Ohio State University (OSU) violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act when it rejected a student's application to the school psychology program was a question for a jury.

Facts

Caitlin Sjöstrand graduated magna cum laude from OSU in only 2½ years. Her final grade point average (GPA) was a 3.87, and she scored a combined 1110 on the graduate record exam (GRE). After graduation, she applied to OSU's PhD program in school psychology. She didn't apply to any other graduate programs.

OSU asked only seven applicants to participate in an interview as part of the application process. On February 26, 2010, Sjöstrand interviewed with two faculty members. She alleged that after discovering she has Crohn's disease, the faculty members questioned her at length about her ability to handle stress and the workload of the program.

Approximately two weeks after her interview, Sjöstrand was notified that she had not been admitted to the program. In fact, she was the only applicant interviewed who wasn't admitted to the program. She made several telephone calls, hoping to find out the reason she had been denied admission. She was able to speak with two admissions officers about her rejection. Neither had personal knowledge of her situation, but one officer told her the file said she "did not fit the program," which he acknowledged was vague given her excellent credentials.

Sjöstrand then attempted to reach one of the professors with whom she had interviewed. It took Dr. Laurice Joseph two weeks to return her call, and she was rather evasive and vague in her response. Joseph explained that she believed Sjöstrand's interests were better suited for school counseling than school psychology.

Sjöstrand asked what she could do to convince Joseph that she was in fact interested in pursuing a career in school psychology rather than counseling. Joseph was unable to provide any specific information, but she did advise Sjöstrand to revise her personal statement if she decided to reapply.

The next day, Joseph sent an e-mail to Dr. Donna L. Pastore, the director of the School of Physical Activity and Educational Services in the College of Education and Human Ecology, enumerating five reasons for Sjöstrand's rejection. Pastore prepared a letter to Sjöstrand stating that the decision was made objectively and the committee felt that her interests and motivation were a better match for counseling than for school psychology. Sjöstrand was subsequently accepted into the school psychology program at Kent State.

Spurned student files suit

Sjöstrand sued OSU under Title II of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, claiming that the school had rejected her application because of her disability. The court applied the burden-shifting standard found in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. Sjöstrand was required to point to a genuine dispute over whether she was denied admission to the school psychology program either "by reason of" her disability (the ADA claim) or "solely by reason of" her disability (the Rehabilitation Act claim).

If she was able to do so, OSU would be required to offer a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for Sjöstrand's rejection. She would then be required to present evidence that OSU's reason was pretext, or an excuse, for unlawful discrimination. OSU moved to have the case dismissed, and the district court granted the motion, stating that Sjöstrand failed to present evidence establishing a prima facie, or minimally sufficient, case of discrimination.

Argument on appeal

On appeal, Sjöstrand cited three arguments to support her allegation of discrimination:

(1) During her interview, neither of the interviewers even mentioned any of the putative reasons why Sjöstrand's application was rejected. Instead, each interviewer devoted over half the time to discussing her Crohn's disease.

(2) Joseph's behavior after Sjöstrand's application was rejected might lead a rational juror to believe she simply papered her file with reasons for the rejection after Sjöstrand inquired about it. Joseph took two weeks to respond, was evasive when asked for a reason for the rejection, and only drafted the e-mail containing five reasons for the rejection six days after the inquiry.

(3) Sjöstrand's GPA was tied for the highest in the applicant pool and her GRE scores easily met the program's minimum requirements, yet OSU denied her admission and accepted the application of a student with a lower GPA, a GRE score lower than the school's stated minimum, and an application riddled with numerous typographical errors.

In determining whether Sjöstrand presented evidence that would allow a jury to find those reasons pretextual, the 6th Circuit found that she had, disagreeing with the district court. The court of appeals found the OSU professors failed to ask any questions related to the five reasons the university provided for rejecting her from the program, and Sjöstrand had presented evidence specific to each of the five reasons.

The court also found that Sjöstrand presented evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue over whether OSU's reasons were pretext. As a result, a jury must decide the issue. Caitlin Sjöstrand v. The Ohio State University, 13-3449 (April 28, 2014).

Takeaway

Employers and universities alike must be consistent in their selection process for employees and students. More important, your reasons for selecting or rejecting a particular candidate must be clearly documented and supported by objective factors. You should also apprise interviewers about the ramifications of discussing disabilities during interviews and dissuade decision makers from allowing knowledge of any disabilities to affect their decisions.

The author can be reached at lwhittaker@porterwright.com.

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