HUNTINGTON – While Marshall University instructors allegedly boosted grades for the daughter of state Treasurer John Perdue, professor Sandra Prunty refused to add a half point for a student whose hearing impairment she ridiculed, a suit in federal court alleges.
Mike Weikle of Ann Arbor, Mich., contrasted the school's reported treatment of Emily Purdue and his client, Alexandra Bertolotti, in a Nov. 24 brief for a discrimination suit against Prunty and the university.
"In sharp contrast to the substantial accommodations accorded the state treasurer's daughter, the plaintiff and her parent's several requests to the university regarding the outrageous statements made by Dr. Prunty and her refusal to offer any assistance to the plaintiff were impersonally denied," Weikle wrote. "Unlike the conveniences accorded the state treasurer's daughter, the plaintiff and her parents were not offered an opportunity to meet with Dr. Prunty and the dean of the nursing program.
"The state treasurer's daughter suffers no physical handicap and no reasonable excuse for her failure to attend the classes or timely turn in the required course work has been reported.
"The university claims everything done for the state treasurer's daughter, including the award of the grade of A in both classes, was entirely proper.
"If the University is correct that its actions regarding the state treasurer's daughter were proper, it becomes even more clear that the plaintiff has been discriminated against by the defendants."
He filed a complaint in October, replacing one Bertolotti had filed without a lawyer.
Her impairment required a hearing aid, he wrote, and the university received funds for her tuition from the state Department of Rehabilitation Services.
In the spring semester this year, he wrote, she enrolled in Nursing 319. Students must score 75 percent there before advancing to Nursing 323, he wrote.
"Although seated at the front of the class, Ms. Bertolotti had significant difficulty hearing Dr. Prunty and could not read her lips as Dr. Prunty has almost no lip movement when she speaks," he wrote.
After the first class, he wrote, Bertolotti informed Prunty of her impairment.
Rather than discussing reasonable accommodations, he wrote, Prunty ridiculed Bertolotti in a hostile and demeaning tone.
Bertolotti fell short of 75 percent by less than half a point, he wrote.
"The emotional distress suffered by the plaintiff was so severe that no reasonable person with a hearing disability could be expected to endure it," he wrote.
He sought compensatory damages exceeding $100,000 from Prunty and the university, plus punitive damages from Prunty.
For the university, Cheryl Lynne Connelly of Huntington answered that the U.S. Constitution generally prohibits a citizen from suing her own state in federal court.
She moved to dismiss retaliation and outrage claims under state law.
She argued that neither the Americans with Disabilities Act nor the Rehabilitation Act permits punitive damages.
As Meikle prepared an answer to the university's motion, the Perdue scandal broke and Meikel changed his strategy.
"In light of these recent developments and the continuing injury the plaintiff suffers from having the failing grade on her permanent record, the plaintiff intends to file a motion to amend her complaint to include a claim against Dr. Prunty in her official capacity," he wrote.
In the new complaint Bertolotti will seek to complete missing quizzes, tests or assignments, he wrote.
She will ask to round her score up to 75 percent, he wrote.
She will seek special help in finishing Nursing 323 in timely fashion to avoid a delay in completing the program, he wrote.
Meikle conceded that the Constitution barred Bertolotti's claims under state law.