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Law prof barred from campus for alleged angry comments claims an ADA violation

Posted Jan 9, 2014 9:19 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago claims the law school failed to accommodate his depression and Asperger’s syndrome when he was barred from campus in October after allegedly losing his temper.

Law professor Joel Cornwell claims a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act in his suit (PDF), filed Dec. 31 in federal court in Chicago. The National Law Journal has a story.

According to the suit, Cornwell’s mild version of Asperger’s makes it difficult for him to read social cues and impairs social interactions. He sees a mental health provider, though he is able to function as a teacher and poses no threat to others, the complaint says.

Cornwell first ran into problems with the school in February 2011 when he expressed anger to maintenance workers who were repeatedly late when rearranging classroom furniture for a small seminar he was teaching. Afterward, Cornwell was admonished for “incivility” and ordered to submit to a “fitness duty of assessment” by an examiner who confirmed the Asperger’s and intermittent depression. The examiner recommended an anger management course, and Cornwell complied.

After the exam, Cornwell requested an accommodation for his Asperger’s in the form of a mental health professional to accommodate communication with the administration. The dean refused in August 2011, telling Cornwell he did not have a disability recognized under the law, the suit says. A year later, Cornwell proposed a faculty mentor be appointed to help his communications. There was no response, the suit says, and Cornwell “continued to experience stress, anxiety and depression as a result.”

In a second incident in October 2013, Cornwell chastised two students who were unprepared for an assignment. Cornwell agreed to administration demands that he read a prepared apology in class, which was followed by Cornwell’s own apology. That same day, Cornwell was placed on administrative suspension and banned from campus.

The suit also claims breach of contractual commitments to academic freedom and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Law dean John Corkery told the National Law Journal that the school has been discussing the issues with Cornwell. “Ultimately, I think our decisions will be upheld, but I can’t comment beyond that,” he said, citing the advice of counsel.

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