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Dalton v. Roane State Community College

July 31, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Phillips)


This is a discrimination action brought pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794. Specifically, plaintiff seeks monetary damages for the alleged failure of defendants to honor certain agreed upon academic adjustments, which resulted in plaintiff's failure to complete the nursing program at Roane State Community College. The case was tried to a jury over a two-day period and resulted in a jury verdict in favor of Roane State. Plaintiff now moves the court for an order setting aside the jury verdict and granting a new trial pursuant to Rule 59(a), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

As grounds for her motion, plaintiff states the jury's verdict that she did not have a disability that substantially limited one or more major life activities is against the clear weight of the evidence. Defendants, on the other hand, argue that the testimony presented at trial does not conclusively demonstrate that plaintiff's impairment substantially limited her ability to learn. For the reasons which follow, plaintiff's motion for new trial will be denied.


Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court may set aside a jury verdict and grant a new trial "to all or any of the parties and on all or part of the issues ... for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a). Courts have generally interpreted this language to allow a new trial when a jury has reached a "seriously erroneous result," which may occur when (1) the verdict is against the weight of the evidence; (2) the damages awarded are excessive; or (3) the trial was unfair to the moving party in some fashion (i.e., the proceedings were influenced by prejudice or bias). See Holmes v. City of Massillon, 78 F.3d 1041, 1045-46 (6th Cir. 1996). The burden of demonstrating the necessity of a new trial is on the moving party, Clarksville-Montgomery Co. Sch. Sys. v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 925 F.2d 993, 1002 (6th Cir. 1991), and the ultimate decision whether to grant such relief is a matter vested within the sound discretion of the district court. See Anchor v. O'Toole, 94 F.3d 1014, 1021 (6th Cir. 1996); Davis v. Jellico Community Hosp., Inc., 912 F.2d 129, 133 (6th Cir. 1990) (limiting a court's responsibility to preventing an injustice); Browne v. Signal Mountain Nursery, 286 F.Supp.2d 904, 908 (E.D.Tenn. 2003).


Plaintiff, Keisha Dalton contends the jury ignored the clear weight of the evidence in finding that she was not disabled under the Rehabilitation Act. Under the Rehabilitation Act, an "individual with a disability" is a person who (1) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) has a record of such an impairment; or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. 29 U.S.C. § 705(20)(B). It is undisputed that learning has been defined as a major life activity. See 29 C.F.R. § 1614.203(a)(3). However, the parties dispute whether Dalton's dyslexia "substantially" impaired her ability to learn.

In order to establish discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, Dalton must prove the following elements: (1) that she is a "handicapped person" under the Act; (2) that she is "otherwise qualified" for participation in Roane State's program; (3) that she was excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or was subjected to discrimination solely by reason of her handicap; and (4) that Roane State's nursing program is receiving federal financial assistance. Burns v. City of Columbus, 91 F.3d 836, 841 (6th Cir. 1996). See also, Doherty v. Southern College of Optometry, 862 F.2d 570, 575 (6th Cir. 1988).

At trial, Dalton had the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, each element of her asserted causes of action. Monette v. Electronic Data Sys, Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1186 (6th Cir. 1996). Dalton proffered the testimony of Priscilla Spitzer, Director of Roane State's Nursing Program. Spitzer acknowledged Dalton received academic accommodations as a result of her dyslexia in college and in the Nursing Program. Spitzer understood that dyslexia meant that Dalton would transpose words and numbers, resulting in difficulty in math and reading. Prior to entering nursing school, Dalton and Roane State entered into an agreed set of accommodations for Dalton.

Dr. Nancy Brown, licensed clinical psychologist evaluated Dalton for educational purposes in the Spring of 2000. Dr. Brown certified Dalton as disabled for educational purposes in the areas of basic reading skills, written expression, and mathematical reasoning skills. Dr. Brown also opined that Dalton had limitations in her short term memory, auditory processing, and difficulty with phonetics. Dr. Brown confirmed Dalton's academic weaknesses and need for accommodations. Dalton also presented the testimony of Beverly Bonner, Disability Coordinator at Roane State. Dean Bonner worked out a list of accommodations with Dalton for her college curriculum and for nursing school.

Dalton argues that no dispute exists that she has dyslexia and that learning is a major life activity. Based on the witnesses' testimony, Dalton avers the clear weight of the evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that she was provided with academic accommodations as a direct result of her dyslexia. Thus, Dalton argues she has established that she was disabled, as defined under the Rehabilitation Act, contrary to the jury's verdict.

Roane State presented opposing proof on the issue of disability as follows: Dalton testified that prior to her studies at Roane State, she attended Tidewater Tech where she earned a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) certificate. Dalton stated that the CNA program contained 308 hours of instruction, including 8 hours of class instruction on the nursing assistant career, 32 hours in anatomy and physiology, 8 hours in simple treatment and emergency care, and 16 hours in home health care, safety and infection control, and introduction to medical terminology. Dalton testified that she earned a 92% grade for the certificate. Dalton presented no evidence that she either requested or utilized academic accommodations in attaining the CNA certificate.

The jury also heard testimony that Dalton, after dropping out of high school, obtained her GED. There was no evidence that Dalton either requested or utilized academic accommodations in obtaining her GED.

Dalton also testified that before being accepted into the Nursing Program, she took certain prerequisite courses at Roane State. Dalton received grades of "B" and "A" for these courses. There was no evidence presented that Dalton utilized academic accommodations in completing these courses. The trial record also reflects that going into the Fall 2002 semester Dalton had attained a grade point average ...

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