BUSINESS

Graduate student sues Fordham over demand for mental health records for re-admission

07/03/2015 11:57 EDT | Updated 07/03/2016 05:59 EDT
ALBANY, N.Y. - A graduate student has sued Fordham University, seeking $5 million in damages and saying the college violated her civil rights by demanding her entire record of mental health treatment as a condition for returning.

The federal lawsuit by Emily Pierce also names the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights, saying the agency has been investigating her discrimination complaint for two years but has gone silent.

Pierce, now 34, was studying at the Graduate School of Social Services in 2011 and 2012, then took two medical leaves. She alleges her federal complaint resulted in retaliation by Fordham, a Jesuit school in the Bronx.

A university spokesman said Fordham followed well-established re-entry procedures in Pierce's case.

"After all this I'm bankrupt," Pierce said. She's now working in retailing, facing debt collectors, hoping to finish her degree to become a social worker and said she's trying to ensure no other mental health patients are treated the same way.

According to the lawsuit, Pierce re-entered the program where she had a 3.3 grade point average after the first medical leave in 2012 and sought additional financial aid. The disagreement over medical records led to the complaint and a second medical leave in 2013 and further demand for records. Pierce said she had provided a letter from her psychiatrist at the time, saying she was ready and able in the fall of 2013 to return.

The Office of Civil Rights initially found she had viable claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, arranging mediation between Pierce and school officials and their lawyers, which failed, the lawsuit said.

"Fordham's well-established re-entry procedures were followed closely in the case of Emily Pierce," spokesman Bob Howe said. "Fordham has complied with all of OCR's requests in a timely manner in this case."

He declined to share Fordham's policy on access to student medical records with The Associated Press.

According to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, schools may inquire into a student's current condition and request recent mental health information and records, but only the information needed to determine whether the student is a threat. "The school cannot insist on unlimited access to confidential information or records," Bazelon said in a 2008 report on campus rights.

The Education Department's Office of Civil Rights tries to resolve most complaints within 180 days but some take longer due to their complexity, spokesman David Thomas said. It refrains from offering opinions without a thorough investigation and doesn't comment on pending litigation, he said.

The situation was further complicated, Pierce said, during her second leave of absence from a misdiagnosis by a psychiatrist at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Westchester, changing her primary diagnosis from recurrent depression to schizoaffective disorder. She said Dr. Xiaolei Baran also changed her medications in what became an agonizing three-week inpatient treatment that followed an emergency room visit when Pierce reported feeling overwhelmed.

In a federal complaint initially filed with the Justice Department in December 2013, seven months after her hospital discharge, Pierce also alleged New York Presbyterian improperly shared information with Fordham, violating her privacy rights. The Department of Health and Human Services, responsible for enforcing patient privacy rules, reviewed that complaint and rejected it, saying it wasn't filed within 180 days, as required.

A hospital spokeswoman said New York Presbyterian wasn't named in the suit and declined to comment.

Calls to Baran were not returned.