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Judge: Pitt student's dismissal justified, not a result of ADA violations

By Jim Boyle | Jan 14, 2015

PITTSBURGH - A student's dismissal from the University of Pittsburgh's graduate nursing program was

justified by the plaintiff's mistakes during her clinical shifts and not a result of ADA violations by the school, according to a federal judge's summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Amy Walsh did not provide enough evidence to prove that administrators in Pitt's masters-level nursing anesthesia program breached its contract with her and did not properly apply its own expulsion policies, according to Chief Magistrate Judge Maureen Kelly of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

According to the opinion, Walsh enrolled into the 28-month program in the summer of 2011. She performed well in the academic portion, court documents say, but struggled when it became time to enter the clinical training portion of the program.

She received “satisfactory” marks in evaluation categories during her rotation at UPMC Passavant between November of 2011 and March of 2012. The clinical experience took a turn, however, when Walsh started rotations at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Pittsburgh.

According to the complaint, Walsh was forced to disclose that she has a history of breast cancer, with surgical treatments that caused limited range of motion in her left arm and joint stiffness. The disclosure resulted from an incident when Walsh could not move her arm to the correct position to secure a ventilating mask on a patient.

When her supervisors told Walsh she may not be able to complete the program because of her physical limitations, the plaintiff complained to the program administrators that she was being harassed. When those concerns were dismissed, Walsh claims she developed depression and anxiety and was prescribed antidepressants.

Walsh received another satisfactory grade for her overall evaluation of the VA rotation, but was placed on a performance improvement plan during her next assignment at UPMC Shadyside Hospital because of reports of possible shortcomings from supervisors. Her administrators indicated that Walsh showed signs of improvement near the end of the rotation, but kept her on the performance plan for her final assignment at UPMC St. Margaret.

On Oct. 18, 2012, the opinion says, Walsh committed two separate medication errors that required the completion of an incident report that later activated the school of nursing's review process to determine if Walsh could continue with the program. The plaintiff was suspended from the clinical program while the school underwent the three-tiered review process involving the associate dean for clinical education, a faculty review panel and the dean of nursing, which all agreed that Walsh's behavior was dangerous and recommended her dismissal.

In her complaint, Walsh argued that the school breached its contractual duty by not properly following the guidelines of the policy rule to enact the review process, saying that her past clinical performances prior to the medication errors should not have been taken into consideration. She also claimed the decision to dismiss was arbitrary and that Pitt subjected her to harassment before dismissing her based on her disability.

Kelly rejected Walsh's arguments, saying she misinterpreted the policy section that addresses a student's past performance.

The handbook explains that the review procedure is intended to review the specific judgment, but “[a] student’s prior performance (clinical or didactic) may . . . be taken into consideration when determining the response to the unsafe behavior. Walsh claims that the explanation means that whenever a student’s behavior is determined to be dangerous or potentially dangerous, she must be dismissed, and therefore 'a student’s past performance may only be considered in situations where the response to the conduct can be something other than mandatory dismissal.'"

"Walsh’s proposed interpretation would lead to such an absurd result," Kelly wrote. "If the only permitted response to unsafe conduct was dismissal, the evaluation of past performance and other mitigating circumstances would be pointless."

Furthermore, Kelly says, Walsh did not offer proof that any of the reviewers improperly considered her prior clinical performance as part of the determination of whether her Oct. 18, 2012 conduct was unsafe or that reviewers would not have found this specific conduct to have been dangerous or potentially dangerous without considering her prior performance.

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