Court Of Appeal Upholds Summary Judgment For University Where Disabled Student Did Not Receive Extension On Paper

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Jan 30, 2023

A few hours before the midnight deadline, Natalie Brinkley (Plaintiff), a first-year student at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), emailed her professor a request for an extension of time to submit the first three-page essay required in her social science class. Plaintiff’s professor ultimately refused the request, citing a general policy to deny extensions requested close to the deadline. At the time, Plaintiff was receiving special assistance and accommodations from CSUN due to her learning disabilities. Plaintiff accused the professor of being “unethical,” advised the professor that she had “sent a request to civil rights for help,” expressed in an email to her counselor in the Disability Resources and Education Services Center that the professor was being unhelpful, and ultimately made a police report for what she described as “harassment” by CSUN in responding to these circumstances. Plaintiff claimed that CSUN’s response to her complaints triggered a series of adverse health effects, and eventually withdrew from CSUN due to medical reasons.

Plaintiff argued that CSUN failed to provide adequate accommodations in light of her disability and filed a complaint against CSUN alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, as well as negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. CSUN filed a motion for summary judgment for each of Plaintiff’s causes of action, which the trial court granted.

On appeal, the California Court of Appeal for the Third District found that the trial court properly granted summary judgment on each of Plaintiff’s causes of action. As to the ADA claim, the evidence established that Plaintiff was not excluded from CSUN by reason of her disability and that CSUN attempted to meet her requests for accommodation. The Court of Appeal also found there were no triable disputes of fact as to her Rehabilitation Act claim since CSUN made accommodations for Plaintiff and did not exclude her from its academic program.  Additionally, the trial court properly found that Plaintiff could not maintain an action under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination by businesses, because CSUN is not a business. The Court of Appeal also concluded that Plaintiff could not have prevailed under a negligence cause of action against CSUN’s individual employees, because there is no relief available to plaintiffs based on personal liability on the part of government employees.

As for the intentional infliction of emotional distress cause of action, the Court of Appeal found that even if Plaintiff suffered extreme anxiety the night her paper was due, the professor’s failure to respond to her extension request before the midnight deadline was not outrageous or extreme enough to constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress. Therefore, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of CSUN.

Brinkley v. Cal. State Univ. Northridge (Cal. App. 2022) B296983.

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