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Lawsuit claims Stanford discriminated against three students with mental health disabilities

Three individuals and a student-run mental health coalition are suing Stanford for “punitive, illegal, and discriminatory” responses to mental health disabilities, a district court complaint filed Thursday reveals.

First reported by The Fountain Hopper Thursday evening, the suit alleges that Stanford placed three students on involuntary leaves of absence after experiences with suicidal ideation and self-harm, without looking into possible accommodations for each student. Rather than seek money damages, the plaintiffs seek a court ruling on the rights of all Stanford students who have a mental health disability as well as a court order on Stanford’s actions in future.

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda said Stanford is currently reviewing the complaint, and that it cannot comment on a particular student’s employment situation or health status in response to the claims in thelawsuit.

“The University is mindful of our obligations in this area under the law and believes we have complied with them,” Miranda wrote.

In one case, the complaint states, a letter from Residence Dean John Giammalva “chastised” the student for violating the Fundamental Standard by seeking help from friends in addition to University-approved treatment. Along with Residence Dean Leigh Thiedeman, Giammalva also told the student that his choice to seek help from friends had burdened and harmed them, the lawsuit says.

According to the suit, each leave of absence decision cited the Dean’s Leave of Absence policy, which places students whose “conduct or behavior” meets one of four criteria on involuntary leaves of absence. The conditions include a substantial risk of harm to self or others, significant disruption to the community, inability or unwillingness to carry out substantial self-care obligations, or requiring a level of care from the community that “exceeds the resources and staffing that the University can reasonably be expected to provide.”

The suit claims that the three students’ mental health disabilities were not taken into account and that the cases are “examples of an ongoing systemic pattern” of Stanford discriminating against students with mental health disabilities.

Rebecca Bromley-Dulfano, a mental health lead for the ASSU, said in an email to The Daily that she hopes the lawsuit leads students and University administrators to work “together to directly address these concerns in a way that is productive and meaningful.”

“It’s a really challenging topic because at the end of the day everyone just wants students to be safe but there is not always consensus on how that should happen,” Bromley-Dulfano said. “What is fairly clear here is that students are asking to be heard.”

Jacob Z.

According to the complaint, the first plaintiff, known as Jacob Z. in the document, was placed on an involuntary leave of absence and told he had violated the Fundamental Standard after an experience with suicidal ideation in his dorm room.

On Feb. 20 of this year, the plaintiff contemplated suicide while adjusting to a newly prescribed medication as part of his mental health treatment, the document states. He called a friend for help, as well as spoke to his roommate, another friend and a resident advisor, who accompanied him to Vaden Health Center to meet a treatment provider.

The document noted that seeking help from friends was in accordance with the plan the plaintiff had discussed with his therapist in case he experienced suicidal ideation. However, by the lawsuit’s account, this decision would later lead Stanford to claim he had adversely impacted his friends and violated the university’s Fundamental Standard.

At Vaden, the plaintiff agreed to an involuntary psychiatric hold at Stanford Hospital while discussing options with treatment providers and was escorted to the hospital for mental health treatment, the document stated.

Three days later, the plaintiff received a hospital visit from Residence Dean Giammalva that left him feeling “traumatized.”

“Giammalva said that Jacob had been a disruption to the community and it was unfair for Jacob to impose a burden on other students and staff,” the document stated.

Giammalva also referenced Stanford’s residence agreement, “made Jacob feel he had violated the rules” and threatened the plaintiff with legal action and a ban from his dormitory, the document added.

The plaintiff “felt like he no longer had a support system at Stanford” and did not reach out to his Stanford friends because he feared he would face repercussions for doing so. He also requested that hospital staff be present for any meetings with Giammalva in future.

According to the document, the plaintiff’s friends later reassured him that Giammalva’s statements about his adverse impact on them were untrue.

Three days after his conversation with Giammalva, the plaintiff received a visit from Residence Dean Thiedeman. Thiedeman told the plaintiff that he would be placed on a housing hold and a Dean’s Leave of Absence; two days later, he was discharged to La Selva Mental Health Services for residential treatment.

While receiving treatment at the center a week after he was first hospitalized, the plaintiff received a letter from Giammalva notifying him of a housing hold and claiming he had violated the Fundamental Standard.

The letter stated that Stanford had revoked his on-campus housing and that he was “prohibited from setting foot in all Stanford residential areas (including residences and dining halls),” citing the plaintiff’s alleged “inability to care for [his] personal safety” and “unreasonable level of care required from friends and staff” — both conditions stated in the Dean’s Leave of Absence policy.

The letter also reportedly “chastised” the plaintiff for violating Stanford’s Residence Agreement and Fundamental Standard “by failing to ‘be considerate of other residents and staff,’ ‘respect the rights of others,’ and show ‘respect for order, morality, [and] personal honor.’”

No reference was made to the plaintiff’s documented disability, nor any possible disability-based accommodations, the document adds. The plaintiff was also initially charged with a $450 housing administrative fee to process the contract termination.

When contacted about the reasons for the housing hold, Thiedeman told the plaintiff she had not spoken with his friends but claimed “unidentified other people had” and that, as a result, Thiederman had decided there was an impact on the plaintiff’s friends.

“Thiedeman’s insistence that Jacob likely harmed his friends interfered with his recovery,” the document stated.

The plaintiff’s friends told him that they had not been contacted by Stanford’s administration; his roommate even sent a letter to Dean of Students Chris Griffith later on to clarify the events leading to his hospitalization and request that she reconsider the decision to place him on a forced leave of absence, the document added.

The next day, the plaintiff received another letter regarding his leave of absence, this time from Griffith. The letter stated concerns about the plaintiff seeking help from his peers in addition to working with his treatment team at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

“At the same time as it chastised him for seeking support outside of formal university channels, the letter claimed that Jacob’s ‘situation required a level of support from University staff and students that was unsustainable and for which they did not have the professional expertise to manage,’” the complaint stated.

The plaintiff was left to coordinate administrative processes on his own, including finishing coursework for two classes and exploring registration with the Office for Accessible Education.

On March 28, he appealed the leave of absence decision with help from his care team at La Selva, the suit says. The appeal described the plaintiff’s progress in treatment and his belief that returning home would be more harmful to his mental health.

The plaintiff also listed alternative accommodations that would allow the plaintiff to stay at Stanford in the spring, including a reduced course load and continued mental health treatment — a course of action that the student’s psychiatrist supported in writing, the complaint states.

The plaintiff’s appeal was denied the following week after a Skype call with a panel of three administrators. The panel recommended a leave of absence to Griffith, who placed Jacob on a mandatory leave of absence on April 5.

For the plaintiff to return to Stanford and student housing, Stanford is requiring the student to produce multiple documents, including a personal statement describing the student’s “understanding of why [his] behaviors are of concern” and a release of medical information that would allow Stanford to speak directly with private health care providers.

“Throughout this process, Stanford has treated Jacob more as a legal liability than as a student,” the complaint concluded.

“The University cares deeply about the health and well-being of our students and has focused on making robust programs, facilities, and services available to them,” Stanford spokesperson Miranda wrote in an email to The Daily responding to the lawsuit on Friday.

Tina Y.

The second plaintiff, referred to as Tina Y., was forced to take a leave of absence in summer of 2016 while studying abroad at Stanford’s overseas program in Cape Town, South Africa, following a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) episode in which she engaged in non-suicidal self-harm, the lawsuit states.

According to the document, the plaintiff was diagnosed with PTSD in fall of 2013, during her first quarter at Stanford, after being sexually assaulted by another student. A concussion in winter 2016, which worsened her mental health symptoms.

In Cape Town, the plaintiff was brought to the Akeso Psychiatric Clinic by Trudy Meehan, the Director for Stanford’s Cape Town Overseas Studies Program, at the recommendation of the local hospital. According to the lawsuit, Meehan then told the plaintiff she would have to remain at the hospital indefinitely, or else be removed from the overseas studies program — an account that Meehan disputes.

“I would not make such a statement,” Meehan told The Daily, citing her training as a clinical psychologist. “I would not under any circumstances say that, it’s a absurd proposition for anyone with clinical experience to ever make (regardless of the capacity they were currently employed in).”

Meehan added that she could not address the specifics of the case as she “believes it would break confidence” for her to comment on an individual student’s situation.

On Tina’s fifth day in the clinic, the lawsuit says, Dean of Students Griffith and Residence Dean Thiedeman told her over the phone that they were placing her on a leave of absence, on the grounds that Tina was disruptive to her classmates and academic program, and that her needs were out of the scope of what the University could provide.

Griffith and Thiedeman also told the plaintiff she would have to undergo a 30-day treatment program, against the explicit recommendations of the plaintiff’s doctor, the suit says.

Erik X.

The third plaintiff, Erik X., was allegedly coerced by Residence Deans into signing a voluntary leave of absence form after a number of episodes demonstrating mental illness. The plaintiff also had his on-campus housing revoked while on a leave of absence.

On Jan. 25, 2013, Erik was hospitalized at Stanford Hospital after he attempted suicide, according to the suit. While in hospital, he was reportedly triggered into an anxiety attack by a text from his Residence Dean, Carolus Brown, stating that the “incident” would not have happened if the plaintiff had met with Brown. The text also allegedly said that “everyone in [Erik’s] dorm was talking about him.”

Another Residence Dean, Giammalva, visited the plaintiff while he was hospitalized to “inform [him]…that [he was] referred to the Dean’s Leave of Absence,” according to the suit, which states Giammalva told the plaintiff that it would be “near impossible” for him to return to Stanford without signing the form. Giammalva also informed the plaintiff that he was not allowed on campus while on leave and would face probation or expulsion if he violated the rule, the lawsuit adds.

The plaintiff was transferred from Stanford Hospital on Feb. 8, 2013 to La Selva Mental Health Services, where he remained in residential treatment for one month. On Feb. 19, Brown notified Erik that Stanford had revoked his on-campus housing, on the grounds of the plaintiff’s “[inability] or [unwillingness] to carry out substantial self-care obligations” and his requiring a “level of care … from the university community [that] [exceeded] the resources and staffing” that the university could provide.

The plaintiff was reportedly strongly discouraged him from appealing the decision by residence deans, despite his desire to do so.

In fall of 2014, the plaintiff returned to campus. In order to re-enroll and regain his on-campus housing, the suit says, he was required by the University to draft and submit a personal statement “demonstrat[ing] insight into the impact of [his] behavior on others.” He was also required to provide a letter from his treating clinician regarding his readiness to return, release his medical information so that Stanford could speak directly with his treatment professionals, and, upon return, participate in off-campus mental health treatment multiple days per week.

For the case to proceed, the class named in the suit — students at Stanford who have mental disabilities and were subjected to Stanford’s leave of absence policy in the past or may be in the future — must be “certified” by the court, a process that guarantees that the plaintiffs’ alleged injuries are sufficiently similar to the class they seek to represent.

The Daily has reached out to Giammalva, Griffith, Thiedeman and Brown for comment.

 

Contact Julia Ingram at jmingram ‘at’ stanford.edu.

 

This article has been updated with comments from Meehan and Bromley-Dulfano.

About Julia Ingram

Julia Ingram ’21 is a reporter for the University/Local beat. She is a New York City native interested in English literature, psychology, ballet, and all things cat related. Contact her at jmingram ‘at’ stanford.edu.