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Disabled Applicant Has a Case Against Ohio State

(CN) - Reviving discrimination claims, the 6th Circuit said Ohio State University may have rejected a doctoral applicant because she suffers from Crohn's disease.

Caitlin Sjostrand had applied to Ohio State for a doctorate in school psychology after graduating magna cum laude from the school in two and a half years.

But, despite her excellent scores on the Graduate Record Examinations and having one of the highest grade-point averages in the applicant pool, the program rejected Sjostrand's application.

She was the only rejection among the seven applicants whom the school interviewed, and Sjostrand claims that the professors asked her more questions about her Crohn's disease than her qualifications or professional interests during this meeting.

Crohn's disease is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the gastrointestinal tract, which can result in chronic fatigue.

When Sjostrand called to ask why she had been rejected, an admissions officer said the only information available was that she did "not fit the program."

The program director, Laurice Joseph, allegedly evaded Sjostrand's calls for two weeks and had little to say when asked what Sjostrand could do to be a better fit for the program.

In a letter to Sjostrand a week later, however, Joseph recited five putative reasons why the program rejected her.

Believing these reasons to be dishonest, Sjostrand sued the university for disability discrimination.

A federal judge sided with the school, but the 6th Circuit reversed, 2-1, Monday.

"Everyone in this case - and notably OSU's own witnesses, including Joseph - agrees that at least one purpose of interviewing an applicant is to discuss the program's concerns about her application," Judge Raymond Kethledge wrote for the majority. "And yet, on the record as it comes to us here, neither Joseph nor Radliff asked any questions - not a single one - about any of the five putative reasons for Sjöstrand's rejection. That omission is important evidence that these putative reasons were actually pretextual ones, and that the real reason for Sjöstrand's rejection was the one that Joseph and Radliff discussed at length in Sjöstrand's interviews: her Crohn's disease."

One factor that the university said made Sjostrand unfit for the school psychology program was the fact that, in her application, she had identified as her preferred mentor a professor in the counseling program.

But a different applicant failed to identify any preferred mentor at all, "so a jury might be skeptical of this reason," the 19-page opinion states.

The court also found that several other reasons the university cited as grounds for rejecting Sjostrand relied on a "tortured reading of her application."

Ohio State faulted Sjöstrand for failing to explain why she was interested in the school's mission in particular, but "none of the application's 12 questions ask for commentary about the program's 'mission in particular,'" Kethledge wrote.

"None of this is to say, of course, that a jury would necessarily find OSU's reasons for Sjöstrand's rejection to be pretextual," the judge added. "But it is to say that Sjöstrand presented evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue as to whether they were. The issue is one for a jury to decide."

Judge Martha Daughtrey dissented from the majority opinion, which she called "bordering on the fantastical."

"It is only pure conjecture that would allow a reasonable jury to conclude that invidious discrimination, rather than the proffered logical explanations, precipitated the admissions decision," Daughtrey said.

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