A dispute over confidential information at a mental health services center on Concordia College’s campus in New York has led to a lawsuit that has embroiled administrators, including the wife of the college president.
As was first reported by LoHud, Erika Rexhouse, a licensed clinical social worker who was terminated as director of the college’s Wellness Center in February, brought the case against Concordia in March. She claimed the college had violated state whistle-blower laws. Rexhouse had made a complaint against Monique Nunes, who at the time had served as senior director of student experience. Nunes is also married to John Arthur Nunes, the college’s president.
According to the lawsuit, Rexhouse alleges that on numerous occasions Nunes attempted to get confidential information about students who had sought access to the mental health services provided by the Wellness Center. Rexhouse reported these instances to the college’s human resources officer and legal counsel.
The lawsuit lays out several instances in which Nunes allegedly tried to obtain information of this nature despite the fact she was not a licensed professional and thus was not allowed to do so under state law. One incident involves an unnamed student who sought help from the Wellness Center due to a history of sexual abuse. The student didn’t want Nunes to learn of the history, the lawsuit claimed, yet Nunes learned of it anyway despite the fact that it was told in confidence. The lawsuit claims Nunes shared the information with her husband. Rexhouse again shared her concern regarding Nunes’s behavior with administrators after this event.
Shortly after this event, the college announced Nunes would resign from her position at the university at the end of the semester.
Robert Bernstein, an attorney representing Rexhouse, said the timing of Nunes's resignation announcement seemed to indicate it was related to the event.
“The timing of Mrs. Nunes’s resignation, coming as it did so soon after Mrs. Nunes allegedly entered a private exam room where a student mental health patient in 'crisis' was awaiting transport via ambulance to a local hospital, Ms. Rexhouse’s immediately raising the issue of Mrs. Nunes’s abuse of confidential patient information, once again, with her superior … and the fear that knowledge of what occurred would soon be circulating around the college campus, certainly suggests Mrs. Nunes’s resignation was a result of this situation,” Bernstein said in an email. “But we won’t know for sure until we get discovery, which is the next [phase] of the case.”
Shortly after this, Rexhouse said she was terminated by the university as a result of a financial restructuring after which the college would no longer fund mental health services. The lawsuit said, however, the Wellness Center continued to operate after Rexhouse’s termination.
The suit claims the college unlawfully retaliated against Rexhouse, as she was protected by whistle-blower laws. Rexhouse is also seeking damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Despite a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, a judge allowed one portion, alleging violation of whistle-blower laws, to proceed. The judge denied another component of the whistle-blower claim on the grounds the plaintiff hadn't proven a risk to the public, and also denied the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.
A college spokesperson, Holly Magnani, said in a statement that the college was expecting “complete vindication.”
“In accordance with Concordia College New York's policy and prudent practice, we will not comment on any pending litigation,” Magnani said. “We do not try our lawsuits in the media, but in court. Our adherence to this policy and prudent practice should not be construed as suggesting that any claims against the college have any merit whatsoever; indeed, just last week the court dismissed the bulk of the claims Ms. Rexhouse had filed against the college, and we look forward to complete vindication in the days to come.”
Bernstein said the ruling represented a win for privacy and mental health resources on college campuses.
“This is a critically important ruling because it recognizes the importance of privacy when it comes to the treatment of students on campus with mental health issues,” Bernstein said. “The ruling also recognizes the overarching importance today of colleges providing mental health treatment options to their students.”