‘A death sentence’: Vanderbilt professor files lawsuit against university for in-person instruction mandate
Professor Idit Dobbs-Weinstein’s lawsuit alleges that the policy violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and is an unlawful disability discrimination.
May 2, 2022
Associate Professor of Philosophy Idit Dobbs-Weinstein filed a civil lawsuit against Vanderbilt on March 15, which claims that she suffered from “unlawful disability discrimination” due to the university’s mandated in-person teaching policies for faculty. She claims that she has a right to teach remotely as a disability accomodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the Tennessee Human Rights Act (THRA) and the Tennessee Disability Act (TDA).
Dobbs-Weinstein filed the suit following Vanderbilt’s rejection of her request to teach remotely for the Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 semesters as a disability accommodation. On March 25, 2021, Vanderbilt announced 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?” Dobbs-Weinstein said. “For me, it [COVID-19] would be a death sentence.”
In the lawsuit, Dobbs-Weinstein requests compensation for lost income and employment benefits, as well as reputational damage, emotional distress and mental anguish.
“It has psychologically and physically affected me. It is really doing a lot of damage,” Dobbs-Weinstein said.
Per Dobbs-Weinstein, she began tutoring other students at the age of 10 and has taught her entire life.
“I’ve been a teacher for 62 years, so it’s such a repudiation of everything I care for and evidence of Vanderbilt’s arrogance.”
Accomodation request and university response
Dobbs-Weinstein is 72 years old and suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other pulmonary conditions, per the lawsuit. Hence, the suit claims that Dobbs-Weinstein qualifies under Section 101 of the ADA and faces heightened risks relating to COVID-19.
“I believe that I have been discriminated against based upon my medical disabilities and retaliated against for making requests for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” the lawsuit reads.
Per documents in the lawsuit, Vanderbilt’s Reasonable Accommodation Manager Caitlin Bird asked Dr. Melissa Warren, assistant professor of allergy, pulmonary and critical care medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM), to complete a Medical Information Request Form for Dobbs-Weinstein on Feb. 3, 2022, to verify Dobbs-Weinstein’s request for accommodation. The same day, Warren wrote to Vanderbilt administration to endorse Dobbs-Weinstein’s request for accommodation. Warren did not respond The Hustler’s request for comment.
“I am writing to advise that Ms. Dobbs-Weinstein should continue with remote teaching, or be given a further exemption from teaching in person past 2/4/2022,” Warren wrote in her statement included in the lawsuit. “She is seen in my office for chronic lung disease along with additional comorbidities that put her at increased risk of developing illness.”
Per an email obtained by the Hustler, Bird offered Dobbs-Weinstein temporary remote teaching through Feb. 11, 2022. On Feb. 19, 2022, Bird informed Dobbs-Weinstein in an email that her remote teaching extension had ended. The email asks Dobbs-Weinstein to resume 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 reads that, on March 8, Bird offered Dobbs-Weinstein a paid leave of absence through August 15, 2022, as an accommodation. Bird acknowledged Warren’s medical opinion regarding Dobbs-Weinstein’s need for an accommodation but cited Vanderbilt’s in-person teaching policies as the basis for her decision. Bird did not respond to The Hustler’s request for comment.
“The university’s pedagogical model is based on in-person instruction, and remote teaching is not an option now that COVID-19 cases have decreased to the Medium level under the CDC guidelines, and vaccination is available,” Bird said in the email to Dobbs-Weinstein detailing the decision.
Concerns with university’s accomodation offer
Dobbs-Weinstein stated that a paid leave of absence was not a satisfactory accommodation to her medical needs and faculty obligations. She and Braun filed a motion for a temporary injunction on March 16 to allow Dobbs-Weinstein to teach remotely until her case was heard. However, the temporary injunction was not approved.
“They wanted to force me into a medical leave of absence, and initially, they offered me an unpaid leave of absence,” Dobbs-Weinstein said. “I’m not doing 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’s Associate General Counsel Allison Cotton in response to Bird’s decision to deny Dobbs-Weinstein a remote teaching option on March 9. Warren also wrote to Cotton about the decision, emphasizing the previous letter of medical necessity she had written.
“It has come to my attention that her [Dobbs-Weinstein’s] request for remote teaching accommodations during the ongoing COVID pandemic surge is being denied,” Warren wrote. “This letter of medical necessity is in support of ongoing remote teaching for Professor Dobbs-Weinstein as her multiple underlying health conditions predispose her to significant risk in the event of COVID exposure.”
Similarly, in his response to the university, Braun addressed issues he claims are unresolved by the university’s accommodation, specifically in regards to how Dobbs-Weinstein supervises a Ph.D. candidate and an undergraduate student pursuing an honors thesis, as well as attends conferences. Dobbs-Weinstein also alleges that her salary increase for 2022-23 is based upon factors affected by a paid leave. The Hustler could not independently verify how the decision would impact Dobbs-Weinstein’s compensation.
Per Dobbs-Weinstein, career development opportunities like research funds and upcoming conferences are also contingent upon her continuing to teach and advise 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 infrastructure in place to Zoom people into their classes, as guest speakers have been Zoomed into her classes throughout the semester. In the Spring 2022 semester, she said guest speakers Martin Schuster, Jay Bernstein and Espen Hammer have spoken to her classes via Zoom.
“Why can other people Zoom in and I can’t?” Dobbs-Weinstein asked. “That’s the moment you see how punitive it is…It is pure arbitrariness, and that is what is most troubling.”
Dobbs-Weinstein also said she was frustrated by the university’s alleged lack of direct communication with her regarding her request and their alleged attempts to disconnect her from other faculty. The civil suit cites that Vanderbilt “failed or refused to engage in good faith in an interactive dialogue regarding” Dobbs-Weinstein’s request for accommodation.
“They even inhibited my [department] chair from talking to me, except through the lawyers,” Dobbs-Weinstein said.
However, the university disputed these claims in a statement emailed to The Hustler.
“While that legal claim is pending, the university and Professor Dobbs-Weinstein appropriately communicate about those issues through their legal counsel,” a Vanderbilt spokesperson said in an email to 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 the decision and virtual learning on students’ education
In a university statement emailed to The Hustler, Vanderbilt again stated that offering remote teaching and learning options is incongruent with the university’s mission and operations.
“Starting in Fall 2021, the university has communicated to members of the Vanderbilt community that offering synchronous, remote options via Zoom or other tools is inconsistent with the university’s decision to return to in-person instruction and could potentially cause issues of equity among students,” the statement reads. “We support faculty providing asynchronous options for students in quarantine and isolation.”
In a March 7 interview with The Hustler, Chancellor Daniel Diermeier stated that professors are permitted to host Zoom classes if they are quarantined due to having contracted COVID-19 or being identified as a close contact. Per Diermeier, exceptions would be made for professors “because they are the ones delivering the lectures.” “We wanted to be committed to a full return to in-person instruction”
Dobbs-Weinstein countered the university’s assertion about remote teaching, stating that it can be an important and effective option when necessary. In fact, she claims that the decision has had a negative effect on her students’ educational experience. Per Dobbs-Weinstein, the replacement instructors assigned to her Spring 2022 courses, while also being faculty members in the Department of Philosophy, do not have the same specialization as her. Dobbs-Weinstein further claims that teaching remotely cannot provide her students with the same “pedagogical experience” that she could have given her background and experience.
“It’s not just that they’re punishing me; they’re punishing my students,” Dobbs-Weinstein said.