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Brown University Settlement Is a Reminder to Review Your Medical Leave Policy

Heather Salko, Esq.
October 2021
Use a recent legal settlement as a template to review and revise your medical leave and return policy.

With many more students needing support for mental health issues as they return to campus, a recent settlement between Brown University and the Department of Justice (DOJ) is a reminder for higher ed institutions of the importance of a sound medical leave of absence policy, including for mental health reasons.

Ensuring your institution’s leave policy complies with DOJ expectations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will facilitate the medical leave and return process for students during a stressful and sensitive time.

Students: Brown Engaged In Unequal Treatment During Leaves for Mental Health Issues

Students at Brown filed disability discrimination complaints against the university under Title III of the ADA. DOJ enforces the ADA in this instance because the university is a “place of public accommodation” and required to provide equal access to its programs to students with disabilities.

The students alleged they were treated differently than non-disabled students when taking medical leaves to address their mental health issues. Specifically, they claimed Brown:

  • Denied them readmission due their mental health disabilities and in violation of the ADA even after medical providers cleared them to return
  • Required them to stay out on leave for a minimum amount of time even if their medical issue had been addressed
  • Tended to screen out students with mental health issues when setting eligibility to return criteria, thus denying these students the benefits of a Brown education

Settlement Requires Brown to Revise its Policy

In settling in August 2021, Brown agreed to review and revise its medical leave and return policy, allowing for more flexibility and requests to modify the policy by individual students, and providing training to staff responsible for implementing the leave policy.

Brown will pay $684,000 to those students the DOJ determined were wrongfully denied readmission to the university following their medical leaves.

What Should Schools Do?

Use this settlement as an opportunity to review your leave and return policies and practices to be sure they comply with the ADA.

Review Your Medical Leave Policy

To encourage a voluntary leave for mental health concerns so students can seek the care they need, your policy should:

  • Provide a general overview of your leave and return process.
  • Avoid blanket requirements for a minimal amount of leave time (such as two semesters) where possible.
  • Explain the requirements (including any documentation) for returning.
  • Make the request process straightforward.

Allow for an Individualized Assessment

Don’t create blanket return metrics for all students who take a mental health leave. Individualize each student’s return-to-school requirements. Evaluation of any medical documentation should occur specifically in relation to the student’s condition and not be compared to other students out on similar types of medical leave. Your policy should:

  • Incorporate flexibility. If a student has received permission to be out on medical leave for a set period, be flexible on the return. Allow students to request to return early, or to extend the time of their leave, or to change conditions for the return.
  • Provide notice of student rights. When students request to take medical leave, inform them of their rights under your policy, including any right to return early or to request a modification to the return requirements, as well as the right to appeal any decision your institution makes.
  • Use the best available medical evidence. When evaluating whether a student has met your institution’s conditions for leave or return, rely on the best medical evidence available at the time of the return review.
  • Allow for an appeal. If a student is denied a return to leave, or any requests for modification to the leave time or requirements, allow the student the right to appeal the decision or provide more information.


More From UE

Checklist: Evaluating Your Mental Health Policies

Webinar: Student Mental Health – Managing Serious Issues Through Teamwork

Online Course: Fostering Student Mental Health

Additional Resources

Departments of Education and Justice: Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Students at Risk of Self-Harm in the Era of COVID-19

ADA: Settlement Agreement Under the Americans with Disabilities Act Between the United States and Brown University

Dartmouth University: Student Withdrawal Process

Virginia Commonwealth University: Medical Leave of Absence

Montana State University: University Leave of Absence and Retroactive Withdrawal Policy

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