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Gati v. Western Kentucky University

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

September 27, 2017

JASON D. GATI, Plaintiff,
v.
WESTERN KENTUCKY UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          David J. Hale, Judge United States District Court.

         Plaintiff Jason D. Gati attended Western Kentucky University from 2010 to 2011 to pursue a master's degree in mental health counseling. Gati, a disabled veteran, lived close to Elizabethtown but over an hour drive away from WKU's main campus in Bowling Green. Gati sued WKU and two administrators, Dr. Bill Kline and Crissy Priddy, after the university failed to offer courses necessary for completion of his master's degree either at the university's satellite Elizabethtown campus or through interactive technology that would allow him to participate remotely. Gati asserts claims for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (KCRA), and the Rehabilitation Act, as well as claims for tortious interference with contractual and prospective contractual relations, promissory estoppel, and fraud. This matter is now before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. Defendants seek summary judgment on all claims asserted by Gati. (Docket No. 38) Gati moved for partial summary judgment with respect to his claims under the ADA, the KCRA, and the Rehabilitation Act. (D.N. 39) After careful consideration and for the reasons explained below, Defendants' motion will be granted, and Gati's motion will be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Gati became permanently disabled after he suffered a serious spine injury during mandatory physical fitness training for the United States Army. (D.N. 33-1, PageID # 442-43) His disability renders him unable to sit for longer than one hour at a time. (Id., PageID # 498-99) After moving his family to Kentucky, Gati met with WKU Graduate Admissions Counselor Crissy Priddy at the university's Elizabethtown campus to discuss a graduate program in mental health counseling. (Id., PageID # 439, 489; D.N. 30-1, PageID # 88-89) Priddy's job was to advise WKU graduate students in general without providing them with specific information as to courses and curriculum. (D.N. 30-1, PageID # 85) Quite simply, she would “help[] any students that had any questions about graduate education.” (Id., PageID # 89) Once a month, she would go to the Elizabethtown campus to assist prospective students who were interested in WKU's graduate programs. (Id., PageID # 88-89) The parties disagree as to what Priddy told Gati during their meeting. Gati asserts that Priddy told him that nothing would interfere with him enjoying a full, unabridged master's degree curriculum at the Elizabethtown campus. (D.N. 33-1, PageID # 448) According to Priddy, her regular practice was to explain that classes would be offered in different locations and in various formats to be determined by individual university departments. (D.N. 30-1, PageID # 89)

         In 2010, WKU admitted Gati to pursue a master's degree in counseling. (D.N. 33-1, PageID # 491) The parties agree that Gati completed two semesters at WKU's Elizabethtown campus without issue. (See D.N. 38-1, PageID # 702; D.N. 41, PageID # 776) However, when Gati attempted to register for the fall 2011 semester, he discovered that the classes required for his counseling degree were offered only in Bowling Green. (D.N. 33-1, PageID # 455) Gati then contacted Dr. Bill Kline, the head of the program, and told him that he could not attend classes in Bowling Green due to his disability. (D.N. 36-1, PageID # 647) Kline referred Gati to Student Disability Services, and Gati later applied for disability services. (Id., PageID # 647-48; D.N. 33-1, PageID # 496) In his application, Gati requested (1) priority registration and class selection and (2) ITV[1] and alternative class delivery. (D.N. 33-1, PageID # 496) Gati later clarified that he was also requesting that his classes be physically conducted at the Elizabethtown campus. (D.N. 32-1, PageID # 405)

         In 2011, Howard Bailey, WKU's Vice President for Student Affairs, informed Gati that his accommodation requests had been denied, and that as a result, Gati would need to attend classes at the university's main campus in Bowling Green to maintain full-time enrollment status. (See D.N. 31-3, PageID # 194-95) Bailey consulted Kline to determine the feasibility of Gati's request to take courses via ITV. (D.N. 32-1, PageID # 382) Kline indicated to Bailey that he would not be able to determine a student's mastery of the course content via television. (Id.) Further, Kline testified that the faculty believed ITV would be inappropriate for the delivery of mental health counseling courses. (D.N. 36-1, PageID # 648) “The faculty believed that the kinds of class interactions that students have with each other, the activities that are conducted in classes and the skills development procedures used in these classes could not be delivered via ITV.” (Id., PageID # 648-49) According to Kline, the classes at issue required students to “get in small groups and look at each other in the presence of one another” so that they could have “direct counseling interactions . . . and receive immediate feedback.” (Id., PageID # 649) Counseling students needed to learn about body language, posture, and communication style, which would be “very difficult to discern when somebody is sitting behind a table pushing a button on a microphone.” (Id.)

         Deborah Wilkins, WKU's General Counsel, explained to Gati why he would not be able to take all the necessary courses in Elizabethtown. (D.N. 31-7, PageID # 298) First, WKU did not have sufficient faculty to teach the courses in Elizabethtown. (Id.) Accreditation standards limited the number of courses that faculty could teach. (Id.) The limited number of faculty in the department thus limited the number of courses that could be offered at one time at any single location. (Id.) Accreditation standards also required part-time instructors to be properly credentialed, and there simply were not enough credentialed instructors due to market demand. (Id., PageID # 299) Therefore, the problem could not be remedied by hiring part-time instructors.

         Gati filed a Student Disability Services Grievance Form with WKU. (D.N. 31-3, PageID # 200) In response, WKU granted Gati's request for priority registration but again denied Gati's request that his required courses be offered via ITV and/or in Elizabethtown. (Id., PageID # 203-04) Bailey reiterated to Gati that the mental health counseling courses required classroom interaction between students and instructor, instructor-supervised skills practice, and small group activities-none of which would be possible in an ITV setting. (Id., PageID # 203) Bailey also noted that Gati had the option of living on campus in order to attend courses that were going to be offered in Bowling Green only.[2] (Id., PageID # 204)

         Gati alleges that WKU violated the ADA, the KCRA, and the Rehabilitation Act by failing to make reasonable accommodations for him to complete his graduate degree in mental health counseling. (D.N. 1-1) Gati also alleges that Kline and Priddy violated the KCRA by aiding and abetting WKU's discriminatory practices. (Id.) Finally, Gati alleges that Priddy is liable to him under theories of tortious interference with contractual and prospective contractual relations, promissory estoppel, and fraud. (Id.) Gati sues Kline and Priddy in both their official and individual capacities. (Id.) Kline and Priddy assert that they are entitled to official immunity. (D.N. 38-1, PageID # 708-10) WKU asserts that the accommodations Gati requested were not reasonable. (Id., PageID # 713-19)

         II. STANDARD

         Summary judgment is required when the moving party shows, using evidence in the record, “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see 56(c)(1). For purposes of summary judgment, the Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Loyd v. Saint Joseph Mercy Oakland, 766 F.3d 580, 588 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). However, the Court “need consider only the cited materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3); see Shreve v. Franklin Cty., Ohio, 743 F.3d 126, 136 (6th Cir. 2014). If the nonmoving party “fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), ” the fact may be treated as undisputed. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2)-(3). To survive a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must establish a genuine issue of material fact with respect to each element of each of his claims. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986) (noting that “a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial”).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Claims Against Kline and Priddy

         1. ...


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