The Right to be Readmitted?

A white law student with disabilities sues because she wasn't allowed back after failing to meet minimum grade requirements -- when she says other students, mainly minorities, were.
January 10, 2008

A law student received a 1.948 grade point average her first year, just below the 1.95 GPA students need to guarantee their spot at Southern Illinois University's School of Law for a third semester. The student, a white woman with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and type II bipolar disorder, petitioned for readmission, per the law school’s policy. The student says she is one of six who applied for readmission. Among the others, none were disabled, four were racial minorities, and two had such low grades that were only eligible to petition for readmission after the law school allegedly changed their grades. Only Lisa Dawn Rittenhouse, who claims that she had the highest GPA of the six, was denied readmission.

She’s now suing in a federal district court – and demanding a jury trial – claiming that she was discriminated against based on her race and disabilities. She’s seeking an award of at least $1.5 million and readmission to SIU's law school.

Her lawyer argues that Rittenhouse, who received just below a 1.7 GPA her first semester, in part because of her disabilities, and a 2.2 her second, demonstrated the ability to attain a 2.0 GPA or higher -- the threshold in the law school's rules for determining whether readmission should be granted. “Under the applicable rules governing readmission, Rittenhouse was the best qualified student seeking readmission,” reads the complaint, filed in the fall. The complaint also notes that, in denying her readmission, the law school indicated that it would not make accommodations for her disability, including additional time for test-taking. Rittenhouse, an Illinois resident and graduate of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, began law school in August 2006.

Southern Illinois filed a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit on the grounds that SIU, as a state entity, is granted immunity under the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The memorandum supporting the motion to dismiss describes Rittenhouse's claims as being "insufficient as a matter of law," and describes her allegation that she was not readmitted in part because she was white as having "no merit whatsoever."

Rittenhouse’s lawyer, Darrell Dunham, filed a counter-motion. He declined to speak about the case. Rod Sievers, a SIU Carbondale spokesman, also said that officials there would not be commenting. “Our legal team has reviewed the case. They plan to vigorously defend the university and dean,” (the law school dean, Peter C. Alexander, who’s also named as a defendant in the suit).

Scott Greenfield, a New York lawyer who has blogged about the case, said that the suit raises interesting questions about the role of law schools in limiting entry into a professional field that the public relies upon. “I don’t know whether or not the school provides support that would have enabled her to have a perfect GPA,” said Greenfield. But, he added, “The fact of the matter is that everyone’s not cut out to do everything they want to do. And ultimately someone needs to protect the public when someone’s put into a monopolized profession, a licensed profession, and they’re not really suited for it.” The official barrier to entry – the bar exam – doesn’t grant law’s gatekeepers the opportunity to get to know students and their competencies as their professors can, he said.

“It’s a very sad fact because I’m an enormously strong believer that LD-kids are treated very poorly in our system and are not given the opportunities to develop to their full potential in our public schools,” Greenfield said – cautioning that he does not know the particulars of Rittenhouse’s case against SIU. “Maybe the school is doing exactly what they should, or maybe the school is just being horrifically bad to a student who with a little help could make them proud? I don’t know which one it is.”

On another note, the case was included in a recent National Law Journal article about another interesting issue in the law school world: The article, titled “Don't Like Your Grade? Sue Your Law School,” is about how law students these days “may be more likely to challenge issues that get in the way of their degrees.”


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