A former undergraduate student is suing UC San Diego, alleging that the university failed to accommodate his disability throughout his undergraduate career.
Shahram Jazirian, who entered Warren College as a bioengineering undergraduate transfer student in 2012 and left in 2015, is suing the Regents of the University of California and Chancellor Pradeep Khosla. Jazirian and his attorneys allege that he was failed by several tiers of university staff, from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) to the financial aid office to various administrators.
Jazirian claims university staff intentionally refused his requests for accommodation, and that this resulted in him being on academic probation and eventually losing his financial aid. Court documents also show that university employees sent emails referring to Jazirian as “Michael Myers,” the villain from Halloween; allegedly suggested that after losing his financial aid, he should go to a homeless shelter; and warned students and staff about him, despite acknowledging he was not a threat to the campus.
The UC Regents, represented by Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton LLP., contend Jazirian did not prove to the university’s satisfaction that he had a disability and that rather than being a question of disability discrimination, “this is an academic question.” In the Regent’s trial brief, they argue that standard policies and procedures are important because, without them, “students might seek and obtain accommodations that are not medically necessary, and thereby diminish the University’s academic standards and harm those students who dedicate long hours and heroic efforts without any special treatment.” They also contend that “Jazirian never provided medical documentation regarding his functional limitations, despite multiple requests by University officials.”
The Regents argue that for Jazirian to have experienced discrimination on the basis of disability, he would have had to be a “qualified individual” and assert that “Jazirian cannot be considered a qualified individual because he could not perform acceptably as an undergraduate student.”
Jazirian, born in Iran in 1971, survived the Iran-Iraq war and moved to the United States as an adult. His visa was suspended shortly after 9/11. He says he lived for two years as a refugee in Germany, an experience he describes as “traumatic,” before being allowed to return to the United States. Prior to attending UCSD, he lived in Illinois, where he says he faced racial discrimination that occasionally turned violent.
According to the suit, he was initially “elated when he earned admission to UCSD, hoping for a fresh start.”
Jazirian is being represented by Omid Rejali, Elizabeth Grumet, and Houtan Yaghmai. Rejali, who is also disabled, publicly wrote in July about the importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the 504 Rehabilitation Act, which prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. “[W]e have been seeing a trend at major public universities putting policies in place to systematically deny such rights to their students,” he said.
“What the plaintiff is alleging is that he was not properly accommodated by the university,” Rejali, told The Triton last month. “We had no idea the issue was this big when we started. It appears it’s bigger than one case.”
Jazirian sought assistance from CAPS to obtain a letter from a psychologist which would constitute official documentation of a disability, so that he would be allowed to maintain a lower course load without losing financial aid. University policy holds that a student must receive documentation of a disability from a medical provider, and present it to the Office for Students with Disabilities to receive accommodations.
The Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) is “responsible for determining eligibility for modifications, adjustments and other accommodations for students and dependents who have disabilities” in the realms of “psychological, psychiatric, learning, attention, chronic health, physical, vision, hearing, and acquired brain injuries.” OSD’s website notes that they “encourage you to contact the OSD as soon as you become of aware of a condition that is disabling so that we can work with you.”
CAPS postdoctoral fellow Marybeth Rigali-Oiler diagnosed Jazirian with major depressive disorder, acculturation problem, and post traumatic stress disorder. Jazirian saw a psychiatrist at CAPS as well, Dr. Laura Vleugels, who also diagnosed him with “Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent, Severe Without Psychotic Features” and PTSD, but referred him back to Rigali-Oiler when he requested a letter documenting disability. Rigali-Oiler told Jazirian that she would only write the letter he needed for accommodation if he agreed to seek outside counseling services while taking his reduced course load.
Vleugels recorded symptoms including “sleep disturbance, dizziness, fatigue, difficulty w/ focus/concentration, low motivation, low energy, chronic pain in his back/neck and hips. He also struggles w/ trauma-related nightmares most nights.” However, in the Regents trial brief, they state that since there was no evidence Jazirian intended to pursue outside treatment, “there was no medical reason, in Dr. Oiler’s opinion, for Jazirian to study part-time.”
While the university asserts Rigali-Oiler acted within her medical judgement, Jazirian’s lawyers contend that this violated the ADA. “Proper training on ADA guidelines would have taught staff that a student’s request for accommodations cannot be made contingent upon certain treatment plans,” says one memorandum submitted to the court.
In 2013, CAPS Clinical Director Dr. Robert Mashman sent an email to CAPS staff, writing that staff should “attempt to discourage students from applying for accommodations, if you don’t think they have a significant mental disorder. It is just a bad experience and a waste of time for the student to apply for accommodations if they are unlikely to receive them and it is overburdening OSD.”
Jazirian claims that at no point did anyone at CAPS redirect him to the OSD or explain how to move forward with dropping to part-time status without losing his financial aid.
At the same time, Jazirian was struggling to maintain his GPA and needed funds for tuition. He picked up extra hours as a campus shuttle driver and began to interact with the Financial Aid and Scholarship Office, appealing his inability to meet the Satisfactory Academic Progress, a minimum of 12 units per quarter and 2.0 GPA.
Jazirian alleges that when the university warned him that his financial aid was in jeopardy because he was taking too few units, he appealed, “describing in detail his psychiatric disabilities in his appeal letters and his need to drop to approved part-time status.” During this time, Jazirian visited OSD, but never followed up to provide them with the necessary paperwork. The Regents assert that Jazirian could have gone to any medical provider to obtain a letter documenting a disability.
According to court documents, in October 2015, Jane Villanueva at Student Account Services sent a headshot of Jazirian around to staff and students, warning them about him, despite acknowledging that “he has not made any overt threats against the school or individuals.” However, Villanueva was concerned that Jazirian had “made disparaging comments about UCSD and its treatment of students.”
During this same period, staff at the Financial Aid Office provided Jazirian with a “code name.” In an email, Dina Skinner, a counselor at the Financial Aid Office, referred to Jazirian as “Michael Myers.” Myers is the primary villain in a Halloween movie series, who stalks and kills teenage babysitters on Halloween night.
“Got it…let’s hope it does not have to be used,” replied Assistant Director of Financial Aid Rosie Castaneda, in response to the nickname.
Jazirian appealed the university’s decision to cut his financial aid several times, and had it reinstated. However, after those appeals, Jazirian was denied a final appeal. Subsequently, his financial aid was revoked. The Regents contend Jazirian both refused to attend a meeting prior to this denial and that due to limits on federal financial aid, he would have run out of funding long before finishing his B.S. degree.
In October 2015, Jazirian was evicted from his off-campus apartment. During this time, he visited then-Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Juan Gonzalez, upset and crying. Gonzalez promised that he would follow up on Jazirian’s concerns. He did not, alleges Jazirian.
In December 2015, Jazirian says that he visited Warren College Dean Kafele Khalfani to assist with moving to part-time status. He alleges that Khalfani told him that the university could not help and to call “‘211’, a general helpline in San Diego, and to stay in a local homeless shelter.”
People who have been subpoenaed for the trial include: April Garrison, a Senior Disability Specialist at the UCSD Office for Students with Disabilities; Scott Klemmer, a UCSD professor of Cognitive Science; Warren College Assistant Dean of Academic of Advising; and several private practice and university affiliated psychologists,
The trial by jury is likely to begin this week, and will be automatically assigned based on availability.
We reached out to UC San Diego Communications and Chief Campus Counsel Daniel W. Park who did not provide a statement at the time.
Gabe Schneider is the News Editor for The Triton. Jaz Twersky is the Editor-in-Chief of The Triton.