Home > Alerts > Justice Department Settles with Brown University Regarding Responses to Students with Mental Health Disabilities, Providing Guidance for All Educational Institutions Subject to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Justice Department Settles with Brown University Regarding Responses to Students with Mental Health Disabilities, Providing Guidance for All Educational Institutions Subject to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Posted: 08/23/2021
Industries: Higher Education | K-12 Schools

On August 10, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (the “Department”) announced that it entered into a settlement agreement with Brown University to ensure that students with mental health disabilities have equal access to educational programs. The settlement arises from the Department’s findings that, between the Fall 2012 and Spring 2017 semesters, Brown denied dozens of undergraduate students readmission after taking mental health-related medical leave in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“Title III”). Brown denies that it violated Title III; however, to avoid protracted litigation, Brown and the Department entered into a settlement to resolve the alleged violations. The settlement outlines a number of actions that Brown will undertake and provides useful guidance for all educational institutions that are places of public accommodation subject to Title III. Perhaps most important, the settlement serves as a reminder that decisions about returns from medical leaves of absence should be made on a case-by-case basis after performing an individualized assessment based on the best available medical evidence.

What You Need to Know
The settlement serves as a reminder that decisions about returns from medical leaves of absence should be made on a case-by-case basis after performing an individualized assessment based on the best available medical evidence.  In addition, the settlement provides a number of other useful reminders and points of guidance to help educational institutions comply with Title III, including the importance of:

  • Revisiting policies and procedures to consider whether any provisions related to medical leaves of absence (and returns from such absences) apply overly-broad standards and criteria or otherwise fail to reasonably accommodate students who are treating mental health disabilities.  
  • Providing ADA-compliant training to individuals involved in making decisions regarding requests by students to take medical leaves of absence and to be readmitted from such leaves.

Actions required under the settlement
Among other things, the settlement requires that Brown:

  • Make reasonable modifications to its policies, practices, or procedures to afford access to University programs and activities to individuals with disabilities unless Brown can demonstrate that making the modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the University’s programs or activities.
  • Not impose or apply eligibility criteria that screen out or tend to screen out an individual with a disability or any class of individuals with disabilities, including individuals with mental health disabilities, from fully and equally enjoying University programs and activities, unless such criteria can be shown to be necessary for the provision of the programs or activities being offered.
  • Develop an annual Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) training program to all faculty and staff responsible for receiving, evaluating, and/or making decisions regarding undergraduate students’ requests to take medical leaves of absence, and/or requests to be readmitted from such leaves of absence.
  • Provide the Department with semiannual reports during the term of the settlement that include: (1) information and documentation related to any decision to deny an undergraduate student’s request to return from a mental health-related medical leave of absence; (2) copies of any complaints filed in state or federal court or with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights and served on Brown alleging that Brown’s undergraduate medical leave or readmission processes have subjected individuals to disability-based discrimination in violation of the ADA; and (3) information regarding the training sessions conducted pursuant to the settlement.
  • Pay $684,000.00 to the United States to compensate certain individuals identified by the United States who were denied their requests for readmission following a medical leave for mental health reasons from the Fall 2012 through the Spring 2017 semesters.

Guidance for educational institutions
Title III of the ADA covers places of public accommodation, which includes many institutions of higher education as well as private schools. The settlement provides a number of useful reminders and points of guidance to help educational institutions comply with Title III, including the importance of:

  • Revisiting policies and procedures to consider whether any provisions related to medical leaves of absence (and returns from such absences) apply overly-broad standards and criteria or otherwise fail to reasonably accommodate students who are treating mental health disabilities. For example, institutions may wish to reconsider policies that require students to take leave for a specific period of time, without taking into account individualized circumstances, and policies that treat leaves for physical health differently than leaves for mental health.
  • Providing ADA-compliant training to individuals involved in making decisions regarding requests by students to take medical leaves of absence and to be readmitted from such leaves of absence.

Educational institutions may also wish to consider changes similar to those that Brown made to its medical leave policies following the Justice Department’s review of its prior policies. These changes include:

  • Determining whether to grant returns from medical leaves of absence after an individualized assessment of each student based on the best available objective medical evidence.
  • Allowing students to request (1) early return from, or extension of, leaves for set lengths of time, and (2) modification of conditions for return from leave.
  • Providing a written explanation for any decision to deny a student’s request to return from medical leave, including all reasons for the denial and citing the best available objective medical evidence on which the decision was based.
  • Notifying students who take medical leave of their right to request a reasonable modification to medical leave and readmission policies, practices, procedures, or guidelines.

If you have questions about this alert or other student mental health and disability issues, please reach out to your regular Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr contact or the authors.