Former PA student sues Quinnipiac for discrimination against her mental disabilities and Ukrainian nationality

Lawsuit claims top administrators mishandled investigation into ‘unlawful conduct’

Chatwan Mongkol, Digital News Editor

A former Quinnipiac University student accuses in a lawsuit that the university failed her clinical rotation, ultimately dismissing her, due to her need for mental disability accommodations and prejudices against her Ukrainian background, worsening her personal and mental conditions. 

In a lawsuit filed on March 18, Alexandra Faulkner, a former physician assistant student, alleges that the university violated the American Disability Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, claiming Quinnipiac’s “hostile and discriminatory environment” led to a more severe mental distress.

Faulkner maintains in the lawsuit that multiple Quinnipiac top administrators — including President Judy Olian, Provost Debra Liebowitz, then-Chief Diversity Officer Don Sawyer, then-Provost Mark Thompson, then-Dean of School of Health Sciences William Kohlhepp and current Dean Janelle Chiasera — mishandled her allegations.

Former physician assistant student Alexandra Faulkner filed a lawsuit against Quinnipiac, claiming the university violated the American Disability Act and the Rehabilitation Act. (Daniel Passapera)

Associate Vice President for Public Relations John Morgan said the university does not comment on pending litigation. 

Andrew Miltenberg, Faulkner’s lawyer, said he hopes to hold Quinnipiac accountable and protect other students from experiencing the same type of treatment through this lawsuit.

“Since arriving in this country from Ukraine, Ms. Faulkner has worked hard to better herself, live the American Dream and dedicate herself to caring for others,” Miltenberg wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “The University’s actions in using her national origin as a basis to attack her professional and academic performance, and choosing to ignore her mental health disability have caused Ms. Faulkner significant damages.” 

Faulkner, who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety before she emigrated from Ukraine in 2004, was suspended for five months in 2019 after she failed the clinical rotation that the lawsuit claimed happened in a biased manner.

In 2018, an evaluator at the Hospital of Central Connecticut, Jeremy Smutz, allegedly took issue with Faulkner’s “accent and Ukrainian background and improperly relied upon stereotypical and historical preconceptions of Ukrainian individuals” to accuse her of being a poor fit for a clinician.

According to the lawsuit, the evaluator “incorrectly perceived” that Faulkner had “a hard time reading the room” and presumed that it was “difficult to tell if this is cultural or personality.”

The lawsuit alleges that the student then faced a dismissive final grade appeal process, which was denied. While she continued to inform top administrators of her complaints, they “seriously and merely brushed off the allegations,” according to the lawsuit.

While Sawyer, current vice president for equity, inclusion and leadership development, agreed to open an investigation into the discriminatory claims and told Faulkner that Quinnipiac took the matter “very seriously,” he did not take any substantive steps, according to the lawsuit.

As a result of the suspension, Faulkner claims in the complaint that her personal life was “severely negatively” affected to the point that she separated from her husband and filed for bankruptcy, noting that it has since been closed.

The University’s actions in using her national origin as a basis to attack her professional and academic performance, and choosing to ignore her mental health disability have caused Ms. Faulkner significant damages.

— Andrew Miltenberg, the case's attorney

When seeking mental health disability accommodations while preparing to return to Quinnipiac in 2019, Faulkner claims she was encouraged to “lie and hide” her disabilities by Kate Palumbo, associate director of the Office of Student Accessibility, “as if they were something (Faulkner) should feel ashamed of,” according to the lawsuit.

Despite Faulkner’s requests for specific accommodations, the lawsuit alleges that the university provided Faulkner with “a finite list of basic accommodations,” leaving her no choice in her accommodations.

The university also failed to inform her next clinical preceptor, Dr. Maria Stack, of Faulkner’s needs, the lawsuit claims. Faulkner also allegedly became a target for comments from Stack about her disabilities, making her “feel and publicly look less suitable to be a clinician.”

One of the alleged comments by Stack in the lawsuit reads, “You know, I’ve had students here with all kinds of issues: that had their spouses deployed, had mental health issues, etcetera. And all of it comes out eventually because you can’t hide it. We’ll find out eventually what your deal is.”

Faulkner allegedly responded that there was no “deal,” and she was only there to learn.

At the end of the clinical rotation, the preceptor allegedly failed her again due to her need for disability accommodations.

A part of the lawsuit includes that Stack said Faulkner sought disability accommodations solely because she was disinterested in learning, saying, “In my 25 years of practice, I have never had a student that had to leave early for appointments. You are just not interested.”

After Faulkner was dismissed from the program, her multiple attempts to appeal were denied. What Faulkner received from Quinnipiac was what the lawsuit described as “a consolation prize,” offering to transfer her earned credits toward a Master of Science in Health Science degree.

The university allegedly denounced any allegations of discrimination and harassment, according to the lawsuit. 

Sydney Reynolds, special to The Chronicle, contributed to this report.