Associate professor of philosophy Idit Dobbs-Weinstein has filed a civil lawsuit court case against Vanderbilt on March 15, who claims she suffered “unlawful disability-related discrimination” because of the university’s imposed in-person instruction policies for faculty. She claims she has the right to teach remotely as a disability accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the Tennessee Human Rights Act (THRA) and the Tennessee Individuals with Disabilities Act (ADT).
Dobbs-Weinstein filed the lawsuit after Vanderbilt denied his request to teach remotely for the fall 2021 and spring 2022 semesters as a disability accommodation. March 25, 2021, Vanderbilt announcement that in-person classes would resume at the start of the fall 2021 semester.
“The main thing to ask is the question ‘cui bono’ [who benefits]?… Why are they punishing me for being disabled? says Dobbs-Weinstein. ” For me, it’s [COVID-19] would be a death sentence.
In the lawsuit, Dobbs-Weinstein seeks compensation for lost income and benefits, as well as damage to reputation, emotional distress and mental anguish.
“It affected me psychologically and physically. It really does a lot of damage,” Dobbs-Weinstein said. proof of Vanderbilt’s arrogance.”
Request for accommodation and response from the university
Dobbs-Weinstein is 72 years old and suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung conditions, according to the lawsuit. Therefore, the lawsuit says Dobbs-Weinstein qualifies under ADA Section 101 and faces heightened risks from COVID-19.
“I believe that I have been discriminated against because of my medical disabilities and retaliation for making accommodation requests under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” the lawsuit states.
According to court documents, Vanderbilt’s reasonable accommodations manager, Caitlin Bird, asked Dr. Melissa Warren, assistant professor of allergy, pulmonary medicine, and critical care at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (SUVM), to complete a medical information request form for Dobbs-Weinstein on February 3, 2022, to verify Dobbs-Weinstein’s claim for accommodation. That same day, Warren wrote to the Vanderbilt administration approving Dobbs-Weinstein’s request for accommodation. Warren did not respond to The Hustler’s request for comment.
“I am writing to inform you that Ms. Dobbs-Weinstein should continue to teach remotely or be granted a new in-person teaching exemption after 2/4/2022,” Warren wrote in her statement included in the lawsuit. “She is seen in my office for chronic lung disease as well as additional comorbidities that put her at increased risk of developing disease.”
According to an email obtained by the Hustler, Bird offered temporary distance learning to Dobbs-Weinstein until February 11, 2022. On February 19, 2022, Bird informed Dobbs-Weinstein in an email that his extension of distance learning was over. The email asks Dobbs-Weinstein to return to in-person teaching by Feb. 21 or consider taking unpaid leave for the remainder of the semester.
“An additional accommodation option we could discuss is unpaid leave for the remainder of the spring 2022 semester,” Bird said in the email.
The lawsuit says that on March 8, Bird offered Dobbs-Weinstein paid leave until August 15, 2022, as an accommodation. Bird acknowledged Warren’s medical opinion regarding Dobbs-Weinstein’s need for accommodation, but cited Vanderbilt’s in-person teaching policies as the basis for his decision. Bird did not respond to The Hustler’s request for comment.
“The university’s educational model is based on in-person instruction, and distance education is no longer an option now that COVID-19 cases have declined to the average level per CDC guidelines, and the vaccination is available,” Bird said in the E-mail to Dobbs-Weinstein detailing the decision.
Concerns about the university’s housing offer
Dobbs-Weinstein said paid leave was not a satisfactory accommodation for his medical needs and his obligations as a professor. She and Braun filed a movement for a temporary injunction on March 16 to allow Dobbs-Weinstein to teach remotely until his case is heard. However, the temporary injunction was not approved.
“They wanted to force me to take medical leave, and initially they offered me unpaid leave,” Dobbs-Weinstein said. “I don’t do that to my students.
The Hustler was unable to independently confirm that Dobbs-Weinstein was offered unpaid leave by the university.
Richard Braun, Dobbs-Weinstein’s attorney, emailed Vanderbilt Associate General Counsel Allison Cotton in response to Bird’s decision to deny Dobbs-Weinstein a distance education option on March 9. Warren also wrote to Cotton about the decision, pointing to the previous medical necessity letter she wrote.
“I learned that she [Dobbs-Weinstein’s] accommodation request for distance learning during the ongoing COVID pandemic ascend is denied,” Warren wrote. “This letter of medical necessity supports Professor Dobbs-Weinstein’s continued distance education, as her multiple underlying health conditions predispose her to significant risk if exposed to COVID.”
Likewise, in his response to the university, Braun touched on issues he says aren’t addressed by the university’s accommodations, particularly regarding how Dobbs-Weinstein oversees a Ph.D. candidate and an undergraduate student pursuing an honors thesis, as well as attends conferences. Dobbs-Weinstein also alleges his salary increase for 2022-23 is based on factors affected by paid leave. The Hustler could not independently verify the impact of the decision on Dobbs-Weinstein’s compensation.
According to Dobbs-Weinstein, career development opportunities such as research funds and upcoming conferences also depend on her ability to continue teaching and advising students.
“She has already approved research funds for conferences in Paris and Rome,” Braun said in the email to Cotton.
Dobbs-Weinstein also alleges that Vanderbilt already has an infrastructure in place to zoom people into their classes, as guest speakers were zoomed into her classes throughout the semester. In the spring semester of 2022, she said guest lecturers Martin Schuster, Jay Bernstein and Espen Hammer spoke to his classes via Zoom.
“Why can other people zoom in and I can’t? asked Dobbs-Weinstein. “That’s when you see how punitive it is… It’s pure arbitrariness, and that’s what’s most disturbing.”
Dobbs-Weinstein also said she was frustrated with the university’s alleged lack of direct communication with her regarding her request and their alleged attempts to disconnect her from other faculties. The civil suit cites that Vanderbilt “failed or refused to engage in good faith in an interactive dialogue regarding” Dobbs-Weinstein’s accommodation request.
“They even inhibited my [department] president to talk to me except through the attorneys,” Dobbs-Weinstein said.
However, the university disputed those claims in an emailed statement to The Hustler.
“While this legal action is ongoing, the university and Professor Dobbs-Weinstein are communicating appropriately about these matters through their legal counsel,” a Vanderbilt spokesperson said in an email. at the Hustler. “Professor Dobbs-Weinstein and her department chair continue to communicate directly about other aspects of her research, teaching, and service.”
Alleged Effects of Decision and Virtual Learning on Student Education
In a academic statement emailed to The Hustler, Vanderbilt again said offering distance education and learning options is incompatible with the university’s mission and operations.
“As of fall 2021, the university has communicated to members of the Vanderbilt community that offering synchronous and remote options via Zoom or other tools is inconsistent with the university’s decision to return to in-person instruction and could potentially cause equity issues between students,” read the statement. “We are supporting faculty by providing asynchronous options for students in quarantine and isolation.
In a March 7 interview with The Hustler, Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said professors are allowed to hold Zoom classes if they are quarantined due to having contracted COVID-19 or being identified as a close contact. According to Diermeier, exceptions would be made for professors “because they are the ones who teach”. “We wanted to commit to a complete return to face-to-face teaching”
Dobbs-Weinstein hit back at the university’s assertion about distance education, saying it can be an important and effective option if needed.. In fact, she says the decision has had a negative effect on her students’ school experience. Per Dobbs-Weinstein, the replacement instructors assigned to his spring 2022 classes, while also being faculty members of the Department of Philosophy, do not have the same specialization as her. Dobbs-Weinstein further asserts that distance education cannot provide her students with the same “educational experience” that she could have given to her background and experience.
“It’s not just that they’re punishing me; they punish my students,” Dobbs-Weinstein said.