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Portland State University has agreed to pay more than $160,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a deaf student who claimed she wasn’t allowed to live in a carpeted dorm or take a required biology-lab course because of her service dog.
The settlement could have widespread implications for U.S. universities in how they treat students with disabilities, said an attorney for the woman.
“This will be an example for other universities across the country,” said Dennis Steinman, who represented plaintiff Cindy Leland and announced the terms of the settlement Friday.
Among Leland’s other complaints: University housing officials did nothing to stop the harassment she endured from middle-of-the-night knocks on her door, causing her service dog to alert her as it was trained. She logged only a few hours of sleep during finals week. When the knocks grew more frequent and officials wouldn’t install a security camera to try to catch the culprits, Leland moved out.
As part of the settlement, PSU will require various employees to attend disability-education training designed to teach them about the Americans with Disabilities Act and Fair Housing Act.
Steinman said the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating PSU because of Leland’s suit, and is in the process of finalizing its own settlement with the university.
Leland and the Fair Housing Council of Oregon filed suit against PSU in 2012, seeking $1 million.
PSU officials disagreed with the allegations made in the lawsuit, and offered this statement Friday:
“Portland State University works hard to accommodate students with disabilities. The university has policies and resources for students with disabilities, including the campus Disability Resource Center. We are committed to the success of all of our students.
“We cooperated fully with the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation,” the statement continued. “We provide training to employees regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act and other policies and procedures and will continue to provide such training.
“While we deny the allegations of the complaint, we acknowledge that Ms. Leland’s experience was difficult and wish her success as she continues her studies,” the statement concluded.
Leland and the Fair Housing Council will split $142,500 of the settlement, with Leland getting the “lion’s share,” Steinman said. PSU will pay another $19,000 into a fund that would be available to pay other students who file claims stating they were discriminated against because of their disabilities.
Steinman said Friday’s announced settlement with PSU will ensure that students with disabilities can take part in campus life just like other students. The settlement requires that the university let students with service animals take biology labs and live in the dorms of their choosing, carpeted or not.
Leland’s suit claimed that she had to drop out of one of her anatomy and physiology labs because a teaching assistant told her her dog wasn’t allowed because chemicals used to store cadavers could be harmful to her dog. The lab was required as a prerequisite for an occupational therapy master’s degree program.
“Because of the roadblocks that PSU put up, it made it more difficult to pursue her graduate studies in the United States,” Steinman said.
Before settling with PSU, Leland applied to a school in the United Kingdom, where attending classes with her dog isn’t going to be an issue, Steinman said. She plans to continue her studies there soon.