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We're All Depressed, But We Can't Sue Public Universities For It

By Robyn Hagan Cain on April 13, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

There are 13 medical schools situated within the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals' geographical reach. Any of those medical schools can dismiss a student based on his suitability for the practice of medicine.

There are ways for a student to appeal dismissal based on a public university's decision that he is not "suited" for medical practice. Suing the school for "major depression" discrimination is not one of those ways, according to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Darin Duncan's tenure as a medical student at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston was plagued by poor judgment. After three appearances before the UTHealth's Student Evaluation and Promotion Committee (SEPC), the school told Duncan to leave and not return. Duncan sued UTHealth after his dismissal, claiming violations of Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He also alleged due process and First Amendment violations, and brought state-law claims for mental anguish and breach of contract.

The district court determined that most of Duncan's claims, except for a claim under the Rehabilitation Act, were barred by state sovereign immunity. The court later granted summary judgment in the school's favor on the remaining claim. This week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed those decisions.

First, let's talk about sovereign immunity.

UTHealth, as a public university, enjoys Texas's sovereign immunity, so Duncan could not sue the school unless his claims fit within one of three recognized exceptions to sovereign immunity:

  1. The suit seeks injunctive or declaratory relief against state officials.
  2. The state waived immunity.
  3. Congress abrogated the state's immunity under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Duncan's case wasn't covered by one of the exceptions, so the Fifth Circuit affirmed the school's sovereign immunity protection.

Let's move on to Duncan's Rehabilitation Act claim.

The Rehabilitation Act protects individuals from exclusion from schools receiving federal funds, such as UTHealth, based on their disability. To establish discrimination, a plaintiff must show that he was disabled within the meaning of the Rehabilitation Act, subjected to an adverse action "solely by reason of her or his disability," and otherwise qualified for the program.

Duncan's main problem was that he claimed "treatable," "major depression" as his disability. In essence, he claimed that depression affected his ability to learn or work at medical school, but he was still qualified to be a doctor because it was treatable.

(Newsflash: If depression among medical students -- or law students, for that matter -- is proof of a disability, then we're all disabled.)

In an unpublished opinion, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Duncan didn't have a qualifying disability under the Rehabilitation Act because he admitted there were available treatments.

It sounds like this lawsuit is just one more bad decision that Darin Duncan can attribute to depression.

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