Former student sues University for discrimination

Former medical student Preeti Rajpal is alleging race- and disability-based discrimination.

by Nicholas Studenski

A former University of Minnesota Medical School student is suing the University, alleging discrimination and dismissal based on her race and disabilities.

According to a complaint filed Oct. 16 in Hennepin County district court, Preeti Rajpal’s wrongfully diagnosed depression hurt her academic performance. The complaint also accuses the University Medical School of allowing racist comments to influence its decision to dismiss Rajpal in 2005 and again in 2010. The University denied the allegations in its answer filed Oct. 25.

Rajpal received a bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology from the University of California-Berkeley before attending the University of Minnesota Medical School beginning in 2002.

The complaint says a fourth-year medical student informally diagnosed Rajpal with depression in 2003, and she entered a depression treatment program at the suggestion of Dr. Shelia Specker, then-chair of the Committee on Student Scholastic Standing. Rajpal also attended therapy sessions and took medication prescribed for her depression, the complaint said.

University interim general counsel William Donohue did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In its answer to the complaint, the University denied that Rajpal was diagnosed by a student and that Specker recommended treatment.

The complaint says Rajpal then sought advice from another physician, who determined she suffered from a sleep disorder, not depression.

Rajpal’s attorney, Richard Wylie, said Specker recommended depression treatment in a COSSS hearing.

“Dr. Specker was not my client’s choice of a treating doctor,” he said. “I think most medical students would take a suggestion from COSSS as an effective requirement. … It’s not somebody you say no to.”

The Medical School dismissed Rajpal for poor academic performance in December 2005, but she appealed the decision, and the school readmitted her in 2007.

The complaint said Rajpal’s medication and other depression treatments caused her poor performance, which the University denied.

Rajpal passed all of her classes for the next two years, according to the complaint. During the 2008-09 school year, Rajpal failed a class and clerkship but subsequently passed them.

After Rajpal failed a clerkship in spring 2010, a doctor from Boynton Health Service diagnosed her with an anxiety disorder and recommended she receive test-taking accommodations.

At the conclusion of a separate clerkship in summer 2010, the course director told Rajpal she would receive a passing grade for the course but a poor review, according to the complaint. The complaint added that the director also made a racist comment toward Rajpal. In its answer, the University denied these allegations.

The Medical School again dismissed Rajpal about a week later for poor academic performance.

Wylie said the alleged racist remarks demonstrate that the University considered Rajpal’s ethnicity in the decision to dismiss her.

“I think at the very least, it means that her ethnic background was on their minds,” he said.

The complaint said Rajpal would have passed her classes if she had been given recommended test-taking accommodations. According to the complaint and answer, Disability Services told the Medical School about these accommodations in 2010, in accordance with University policy.

The University recognizes anxiety and depression as disabilities and offers testing accommodations like more time and a private space, according to Disability Services.

Wylie said he can’t speculate whether the case will go to trial but cited the fact that fewer than 5 percent of cases go to trial. He wouldn’t say the dollar amount of damages Rajpal is seeking.