Thursday, October 29, 2009

Princeton student with learning disabilities sues university for refusal to allow her extra time on exams

From the New Jersey Law Journal:

A learning-disabled freshman suing Princeton University for refusing to allow her extra time to take exams was dealt a setback this week, as a federal judge refused a temporary restraining order on the eve of midterms.

But plaintiff Diane Metcalf-Leggette still has a shot at getting a preliminary injunction in January, when final exams begin, if she can show probability of success in her suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Metcalf-Leggette, of Centreville, Va., contended that a poor performance on the midterms would constitute irreparable harm, but U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson in Trenton, N.J., said the school could deal with that after the fact.

Thompson set a hearing date for Jan. 11, a week before the start of finals, in Metcalf-Leggette v. Princeton University, 3:09-cv-05428.

Metcalf-Leggette, represented by Seth Lapidow and Jonathan Korn of Blank Rome in Princeton, asked for an accommodation in a series of meetings with university officials before suing the school on Monday, the day before midterm exams began.

Metcalf-Leggette has been diagnosed with a series of disorders that limit her ability to concentrate, process information and communicate in writing.

Metcalf-Leggette learned of her diagnoses in 2003. Later, at the private school she attended, she received a 100 percent time extension for exams; a 100 percent extension on the SAT; and a 200 percent extension on the ACT.

Her older brother, David, who also had learning disabilities, graduated from Princeton University in 2008 and was given 100 percent extended time for exams while there. Metcalf-Leggette says she was told his extended time was approved by the predecessor of Eve Tominey, the director of Princeton's Office of Disability Services. Tominey left the extended time accommodation in place for David Metcalf "as a courtesy," the plaintiff says in her suit.

Metcalf-Leggette's suit says she disclosed her learning disabilities to Princeton during the admissions process.

She says university attorney Hannah Ross told her during a Sept. 19 meeting that independent study and deadlines are a major part of the school's instructional program, and the school did not need to offer extra exam time if doing so would harm the "essence" of a Princeton education.

According to the suit, Metcalf-Leggett has:

• Mixed-Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder, which limits her ability to comprehend language, express language or recall material.

• Disorder of Written Expression, which leaves her ability to communicate in writing below the level expected based on age, intelligence or life experiences. When she writes, she has to repeatedly re-check what she has composed.

• Developmental Coordination Disorder, which leaves her ability to spell, punctuate and form sentences below the level expected based on age, intelligence or life experiences. She needs to read material several times over, isolate key words and highlight them so she can locate them again. Also under this disorder, her visual-motor processing skills are in the sixth percentile, "far below the average person, let alone the typical Princeton University student." She also suffers eye strain when taking tests and needs periodic breaks because of the way she reads passages over and over.

• Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which limits her ability to focus. When reading, any distraction requires her to go back to the beginning of the passage.

Princeton did grant Metcalf-Leggette several accommodations, including the right to take tests in a "reduced distraction testing environment," a 10-minute break every hour during tests and a one-exam-per-day limit.

In an Oct. 21 letter to Metcalf-Leggette's attorneys, Ross said, "Our office has found it to be a relatively rare occurrence that an attorney is very familiar with the type of action that might be contemplated against the university in a situation like this."

Ross enclosed copies of two cases she said provided "the best information about both the probabilities of success of such an action and the university's current and historical resolve in vigorously defending these types of cases."

She cited Connell v. Princeton, A-6388-99, a 2001 case where the Appellate Division upheld the university's dismissal of a student who sought an injunction to force the school to readmit him pending a determination of whether his dismissal on academic grounds was discrimination based on disability.

Ross also cited Zakharia v. Princeton, a 1999 Law Division case in which the court denied the plaintiff a temporary injunction barring the university from suspending him.

Lapidow, Metcalf-Leggette's attorney, says neither case is on point.

He says giving his client extra time to complete exams would not be unfair to other students.

"The literature is pretty clear that extended time doesn't do any favors for students who are not disabled. What my client needs is to do is cut through the haze of her disability, which is a labor-intensive process," says Lapidow. "She's very bright and very able. She has some significant hurdles presented by her disabilities that she's overcome."

Cass Cliatt, a university spokeswoman, says the school declines to discuss ongoing litigation.