WINCHESTER — A Nigerian man dismissed from Shenandoah University’s Physician Assistant Studies Program in April is suing the university for $1.5 million.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Winchester Circuit Court, the unidentified plaintiff said he was discriminated against because of his race and for his social anxiety disorder. The man, who is now a permanent U.S. resident, was diagnosed with the disorder in 2018, according to the lawsuit written by attorney Nicholas F. Simopoulos. The disorder, also known as social phobia, is characterized by extreme fear of embarrassment and humiliation.
Simopoulos said his client enrolled in 2018 and was in a predominantly white class. The man disclosed his disorder, which Simopoulos said was exacerbated by a separation and child custody dispute, in December of 2019. He said the university made accommodations for his client, referred to as John Doe in the lawsuit. They included allowing him time-and-a-half for quizzes and to take tests in a quiet, distraction-free environment.
Simopoulos said his client only had one semester when his GPA was below 3.0 and he never earned a D or F. Nonetheless, two weeks after disclosing his disability, he was told he was being dismissed from the program. Simopoulos said the dismissal violated the program's rules because Doe's cumulative GPA never dropped below 3.0 for two consecutive semesters and he never earned a D or F. He said Doe, who was placed on academic probation and put on a remediation plan, was singled out for "harsh treatment" because of his disability.
Simopoulos said Doe's GPA improved to 3.8, but he was dismissed again in August of last year because his cumulative GPA was 2.9. Simopoulos alleged SU had a double standard for his client. He said a white, female student and classmate of Doe's who earned an F and failed to raise her GPA to 3.0 was allowed to stay on probation and remediation.
In December, Doe was dismissed a third time from the program. A failed lab exercise involving the simulated administration of medication that could've jeopardized patient safety in a real setting was cited as the primary reason. In March, Doe's appeal was denied, according to the suit.
Simopoulos said that in an April 21 letter to Doe, SU President Tracy Fitzsimmons denied his subsequent appeal, saying the dismissal was "due solely to concerns for patient safety." The suit said the correspondence was forwarded to SU officials and was published in Doe's permanent academic file. Simopoulos called the statements "false and stigmatizing" and said they would make it impossible for his client, who worked as an epidemiologist in the U.S. before enrolling at SU, to be accepted into other physician assisant programs.
Simopolous blamed a "continuing cycle of improper and harassing dismissals, appeals and reinstatements" for any errors his client made and for exacerbating his disorder. He said Doe was in a "hyper-scrutinized position" and was essentially set up to fail.
"Defendant's dismissal of Doe from the PA program was not the result of Doe's lack of ability, effort, intelligence, knowledge or qualifications," Simopolous wrote. "Rather, it was the pre-determined outcome of a continuing pattern of discriminatory treatment and a hostile learning environment against Doe due to his race and disability."
In a Friday email, Susan Jenkins, a university spokeswoman, said that since Doe is a former student, she wouldn't comment on the allegations. In general, Jenkins said SU doesn't discriminate, including on the basis of age, disabilities, gender, race or religion. "We will vigorously defend ourselves against anyone who alleges otherwise," she said.