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Toma v. University of Hawaii

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

January 16, 2018

JOHN TOMA, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS SECOND AMENDED COMPLAINT

          Richard L. Puglisi, United States Magistrate Judge

         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Second Amended Complaint, filed on November 14, 2017 (“Motion”). ECF No. 38. Plaintiff's Opposition was filed on December 6, 2017; Defendant filed its Reply on December 19, 2017. ECF Nos. 41, 42, 43. Pursuant to Local Rule 7.2(d), the Court found the Motion suitable for disposition without a hearing. ECF No. 44. After carefully reviewing the parties' submissions and the relevant legal authority, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the Motion.

         BACKGROUND

         After the Court granted Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint. See ECF Nos. 35, 36. In his Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that he matriculated as a medical student at the John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawaii at Manoa, in July 2005. ECF No. 36 ¶ 9. Shortly after July 2005, Plaintiff began to experience episodes of anxiety, depression, and inabilities to sleep or focus. Id. ¶ 10. Beginning in 2007, Plaintiff was under psychiatric care. Id. ¶ 17.

         Plaintiff was placed on academic probation on January 24, 2009, with the requirement that Plaintiff take a medical licencing exam by the end of May 2009. Id. ¶ 23. On July 1, 2009, Plaintiff requested a hearing before the Student Standing and Promotion Committee to request an extension of time to take the medical licencing exam to accommodate the episodes of anxiety that he was experiencing. Id. ¶ 24. The Student Standing and Promotion Committee directed Plaintiff to take the exam by the end of July 2009. Id. ¶ 25. Plaintiff took the medical licencing exam on July 27, 2009, and did not pass. Id. ¶¶ 26, 27. Plaintiff's failure on the exam caused a major depressive episode as diagnosed by his treating psychiatrist pursuant to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV TR) criteria for Major Depressive Episode. Id. ¶ 28.

         In October 2009, Dr. Mary Ann Antonelli, Director of the Office of Student Affairs at the medical school, asked Plaintiff to appear before the Student Standing and Promotion Committee to evaluate his academic progress. Id. ¶ 41. In response, Plaintiff emailed Dr. Antonelli about his depression and disability. Id. ¶ 42. Dr. Antonelli did not refer Plaintiff to the office for students with disabilities, but accommodated Plaintiff by twice postponing Plaintiff's appearance before the committee. Id. ¶¶ 44-45.

         Plaintiff appeared before the Student Standing and Promotion Committee on February 10, 2010. Id. ¶ 47. The committee allowed Plaintiff to re-take the medical licencing exam by April 28, 2010, to accommodate his disability. Id. ¶ 48. Plaintiff then experienced another episode of depression. Id. ¶ 31. In April 2010, Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist advised Plaintiff to take a medical leave of absence from school and not to take the medical licencing exam by the April 28, 2010 deadline. Id. ¶ 49. Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist wrote a letter to the medical school on June 7, 2010, stating that she recommended a 4-6 month leave of absence to accommodate Plaintiff's depression. Id. ¶ 50. Dr. Antonelli approved Plaintiff's medical leave of absence on June 23, 2010. Id. ¶ 51. In the following months, Plaintiff's episode of depression continued without relief. Id. ¶ 34.

         In August 2010, Plaintiff was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and began treatment. Id. ¶ 35. In the following months, Plaintiff's episode of depression started to resolve. Id. ¶ 36. By November 2010, Plaintiff's ability to study was not substantially limited anymore, and subsequently he resumed his review for the exam. Id.

         On December 1, 2010, the new Director of the Office of Student Affairs at the medical school, Dr. Richard Smerz, ordered Plaintiff to attend a meeting before the Student Standing and Promotion Committee to evaluate his academic progress on January 12, 2011. Id. ¶ 55. Plaintiff met with Dr. Smerz on January 5, 2011, and informed him of his medical disabilities, including depression and recently diagnosed hypothyroidism. Id. ¶ 56. Plaintiff's episodic depression and hypothyroidism had begun to respond to treatment by January 2011. Id. ¶¶ 39, 57. Plaintiff asked Dr. Smerz to continue Plaintiff's medical leave to allow time for his treatment to become fully effective, which Dr. Smerz refused. Id. ¶¶ 57, 58. Dr. Smerz encouraged Plaintiff to withdraw from medical school or face almost certain expulsion. Id. ¶ 58. Dr. Smerz also told Plaintiff that he needed to learn to cope with his problems. Id. ¶ 59. Dr. Smerz did not recommend or contact the office for students with disabilities. Id. ¶ 61. Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist also contacted Dr. Smerz to ask that Plaintiff be given continuing accommodation to allow time for his treatment to become fully effective, which Dr. Smerz refused. Id. ¶¶ 62-63.

         The Student Standing and Promotion Committee met on January 12, 2011, to review Plaintiff's case and voted unanimously to dismiss Plaintiff from the medical school for academic malperformance. Id. ¶¶ 64-68.

         Plaintiff appealed the committee's decision on January 24, 2011. Id. ¶ 79. Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist submitted a letter regarding Plaintiff's depression and hypothroidism stating that these conditions “affected his energy, motivation, concentration and cognitive clarity.” Id. ¶ 81. Plaintiff's appeal was dismissed on February 18, 2011, concluding that there were no grounds for a formal hearing. Id. ¶ 82.

         On March 1, 2011, Plaintiff appealed the decision to Dr. Jerris Hedges, Office of the Dean of Medicine, asking permission to re-take the licencing exam as an accommodation for his depression and hypothyroidism. Id. ¶¶ 87-93. Plaintiff met with Dr. Hedges regarding his appeal on April 6, 2011. Id. ¶ 94. Plaintiff received a letter from Dr. Hedges on April 7, 2011, upholding the decision to dismiss Plaintiff from the medical school. Id. ¶ 95.

         In December 2011, Plaintiff filed discrimination complaints against Dr. Hedges and Dr. Smerz with the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Students. Id. ¶ 122. A fact-finding report prepared by an investigation team regarding Plaintiff's complaints was submitted to the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Students on May 21, 2012. Id. ¶ 123. As part of that investigation, the team interviewed the Director of the University of Hawaii's Kokua Program, which is the office for students with disabilities. Id. ¶¶ 124, 44. On June 20, 2012, Reed Dasenbrock, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, issued his decision finding no discrimination by Dr. Hedges and Dr. Smerz. Id. ¶¶ 130-142.

         On July 21, 2012, Plaintiff appealed the decision finding no discrimination by Dr. Hedges and Dr. Smerz to Vassilis Syrmos, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, acting as the Chancellor's designee. Id. ΒΆ 149. Plaintiff's appeal regarding the decision finding no ...


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