Students Sue Yale, Alleging Discrimination Against Students With Mental Health Disabilities

The lawsuit, brought by two current students and an advocacy group, doesn't seek monetary damages but instead asks for changes to Yale's policies and practices.
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Published on December 6, 2022
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  • The lawsuit claims Yale violates four laws regarding discrimination based on disability.
  • The Washington Post reported student stories claiming harm caused by Yale's withdrawal and reinstatement procedures.
  • Two Yale officials and the president spoke out against The Washington Post article and defended Yale's efforts to increase mental health aid on campus.

Two Yale University students are suing the school to change the way it handles student mental health.

The students and Elis for Rachael, a nonprofit student advocacy organization, filed a lawsuit Nov. 30 in the U.S. District Court of Connecticut.

The 41-page lawsuit, which includes accounts by the two current students and three former students, claims that the university's medical withdrawal and reinstatement system for mental health discriminates against students with mental health disabilities and violates the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Yale's policies, the lawsuit alleges, place unfair hurdles for students with mental health disabilities to receive proper aid and put students who have withdrawn at a disadvantage, compared to other students.

The lawsuit doesn't seek monetary damages. Instead, it seeks changes to the university's policies and practices.

Here are the events and press reports that led to the lawsuit and the allegations against one of the country's most prestigious universities.

Washington Post Story Sparks Outrage, Debate

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a saga that started with a Nov. 11 article in The Washington Post titled "What if Yale Finds Out?" In it, several students with mental health conditions said they were hurt by Yale University's medical withdrawal and reinstatement process.

The article likewise cited a 2018 survey by the Ruderman Family Foundation in which all eight Ivy League schools received a grade no higher than a D+ for leave of absence policies for mental health.

Yale received an F.

Paul Hoffman, director of Mental Health & Counseling for Yale Health, and Pericles Lewis, dean of Yale College, responded to The Washington Post in a Nov. 15 letter to the editor.

Yale officials could not respond to the specific allegations made by students because of confidentiality issues, they said. However, they asserted that most hospitalized students return to campus.

They likewise condemned The Washington Post article for perpetuating "... a dangerous belief that college students should stay in school whatever the risk to their mental health and safety."

"The article could put more students at risk in its misguided focus on continuous enrollment rather than considering the value of taking time necessary for mental health care," they said.

The Lawsuit Alleges Yale's Policies Hurt Students

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit is the nonprofit organization Elis for Rachael, an advocacy group comprising Yale alumni and friends and family of Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum, a Yale student who died by suicide in 2021.

In suing to change the university's policies and practices, Elis for Rachael and two current students allege that Yale pressures students to take "voluntary" time off for significant symptoms of a mental health disability. According to the plaintiffs, the university likewise implied that if they did not voluntarily withdraw, the university would impose an involuntary withdrawal.

According to the lawsuit, students who withdraw due to mental health disability are barred from campus, school activities, and summer classes. There is no similar ban for students who take a leave of absence, it says.

According to the lawsuit, Yale gives students who withdraw 48 hours to move out of campus housing, and they may also not receive rebates for tuition, room, and board payments.

The lawsuit also alleges that withdrawal unfairly impacts less privileged students who use the university-provided insurance.

Students who withdraw after the first 15 days of the term only have their insurance plan for 30 days (unless the term ends sooner), according to the lawsuit. Students who withdraw before the 15-day mark cannot have health coverage under the Yale Health Student Affiliate program.

"Thus, Yale's withdrawal policy imposes unreasonable burdens on students who withdraw for disability-related reasons and discourage students from withdrawing from Yale due to a disability when that is appropriate," said the lawsuit, "a student on withdrawal does not have the option to continue health insurance, is banned from campus, must relinquish their housing, may lose tuition, room, and board fees already paid, and must remain away for a prescribed minimum period of time, even if they can provide documentation from a medical provider recommending that they return earlier."

According to the lawsuit, reinstated students must not fail any courses for two terms after reinstatement; if they do, they must withdraw again. Students who have not withdrawn can fail a class in three successive terms before losing good academic standing, it says.

The lawsuit claims Yale's withdrawal and reinstatement are too confusing and inconsistent and alleges that Yale's website contains pages with conflicting information for options and consequences for time off.

The lawsuit claims that Yale's "full-time school" policies create barriers for students with mental health disabilities who could benefit from part-time enrollment. The university charges full tuition for students who do not take a full-time course load.

For instance, plaintiff Alicia Abramson claims that after discussions with Yale officials she understood that her options were to attend full time or withdraw. According to the lawsuit, the same is not true for adult students reentering academia for nondisability reasons.

"Yale's refusal to allow, as reasonable accommodations, either part-time study or to extend the time for earning a degree, are examples of its broader failure to provide reasonable accommodations for students with mental health disabilities," said the lawsuit. "In most instances, Yale is on notice of a student's mental health disability, yet it fails to engage in an interactive process about potential accommodations or offer alternatives to withdrawal for students who need reasonable accommodations."

The lawsuit names students it claims were harmed by Yale's policies, one of which is Nicolette Mántica, a former student featured in The Washington Post article.

Lawsuit Alleges Violations of Laws Protecting Students With Disabilities

The lawsuit, which requests class-action status from the court, claims that Yale University is violating four laws:

  • Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
  • The Fair Housing Act.

According to Title III of the ADA, individuals with disabilities are entitled "to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation."

Section 504 says that individuals with disabilities "shall not, solely because of their disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says "an individual shall not, on the ground prohibited under ... section 794 of title 29 [Section 504], be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under, any health program or activity, any part of which is receiving Federal financial assistance..."

According to the lawsuit, the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the terms, conditions, sale, or rental of a dwelling based on disability.

Yale's President Responds

In a statement responding to the lawsuit provided to The Washington Post, Yale issued a brief statement:

"The university is confident that our policies comply with all applicable laws and regulations. Nonetheless, we have been working on policy changes that are responsive to students' emotional and financial wellbeing."

But prior to the lawsuit being filed, university President Peter Salovey in a letter to the Yale community responded to The Washington Post article and outlined Yale's policies and efforts on behalf of students dealing with mental health concerns.

"The Washington Post article does not reflect Yale's efforts to foster student wellness," Salovey said. "The article fails to acknowledge the support, processes, and policies in place or the positive outcomes associated with our work. To be clear, the health and well-being of Yale students are primary university priorities."

Yale has increased efforts to address mental health concerns since the pandemic exacerbated the demand for services and support, Salovey said. Those efforts include:

  • Removing requirements for withdrawn students to take two courses.
  • Simplifying the withdrawal process; Yale dropped an interview with the chair of the reinstatement committee that students found intimidating.
  • Launching the Yale College Community Care (YC³) program, which connects students with licensed mental health professionals for one-on-one, drop-ins, group counseling sessions, and workshops for well-being.

Salovey said that Yale reinstates 90% of students on the first request, 99% by the second, and 100% by the third request. He said that residential college deans work with students through accommodations to maintain their academic status and work through the best path, even if it means withdrawal.

He said that the deans offer continued mentorship, academic guidance, and treatment from Yale's mental health and counseling services throughout withdrawal.

"I found The Washington Post article deeply disturbing for the misinformation it contains about Yale and for the harm it can do to students by perpetuating the damaging narrative that it is more important to stay in college than to take time to heal," said Salovey.

"On a personal note, as a clinical psychologist and faculty member who has worked alongside mental health and student affairs colleagues at Yale for four decades, I am disappointed that the Post article misrepresents our efforts and unwavering commitment to supporting our students, whose well-being and success are our primary focus."