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Discrimination lawsuit against AU by student moves forward

DC federal district court granted discovery in a lawsuit involving a 2019 mental health incident and AUPD

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia is allowing a lawsuit filed against American University in 2020 by student Gianna Wheeler to proceed to the next step, known as discovery. 

The discovery phase enables both parties to gather more information in preparation for trial. Wheeler’s counsel said they hope to examine AU’s student-discipline policies, whether the officers involved in the incident are entitled to qualified immunity and what role Dean of Students Jeffrey Brown played during the incident. 

“The Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs is proud to represent Ms. Wheeler and we’re happy that the court appropriately determined that her case can move forward,” Maggie Hart, Wheeler’s counsel, told The Eagle. 

The incident in question happened in 2019 when four AU Police Department and three Metropolitan Police Department officers arrived at the off-campus residence of then-junior Gianna Wheeler for a welfare check. By the end of the night, they forcibly removed Wheeler and placed her in a hospital for mental health reasons. 

Wheeler subsequently filed a lawsuit, arguing in her complaint that AUPD and MPD had unlawfully entered and trespassed. These claims were granted summary judgment from the court on the basis that the officers were conducting a welfare check due to Wheeler’s prior actions throughout the day, though no final decision has been made yet. Summary judgment examines details in a case before bringing it to trial, and in design, is used to resolve a lawsuit before bringing it to court. A summary judgment is called when a moving party shows that there is no dispute over the material facts that they present to the court.

Wheeler also alleges officers conducted an unreasonable seizure and false arrest and argued that AU had discriminated against her because of her disabilities in terms of her mental health.

The court concluded that Wheeler’s unreasonable seizure and false arrest claims were entitled to discovery, citing factual gaps in the body-worn video footage provided by the University from that evening.

Footage submitted to the court from the officers’ body cameras of the seizure showed Wheeler was restrained on the ground, handcuffed and wrapped in a blanket before being forcibly removed from her room. The District Court noted the “footage of the seizure is jarring.”

Wheeler’s argument that the University had violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act will also proceed to discovery. 

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on disability which may hinder an individual’s opportunities “to participate in or benefit from the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations.” 

The court concluded that conduct-based disciplinary actions are not prohibited by federal law if the disciplinary actions are not because of an individual’s disability. 

“All safety protocols were followed in a non-discriminatory manner that prioritizes the well-being of our students and our community,” Matthew Bennett, AU’s vice president and chief communications director, wrote in an email to The Eagle.

The court’s opinion said that Wheeler’s previous mental-health history may “have heightened the cause for concern arising out of the events earlier in the day” and provided grounds for a welfare check. 

However, the court found that the mental health argument on its own does not supply probable cause that she presented imminent harm to herself and others. 

Earlier on the day of the seizure, AUPD received a complaint that a student had been accosted by Wheeler in a campus lab. The same day, an AU professor also contacted the University’s administration, saying Wheeler appeared to be experiencing a manic episode, or another form of a mental-health-related episode.

According to the District Court, the AU administration “concluded with a decision to place Wheeler on interim suspension effective immediately” after holding a meeting, without Wheeler, following the two reports. 

AUPD was also asked to conduct a “welfare check” and Dean Brown’s notes from the meeting confirmed AUPD would act on an “FD-12,” an involuntary mental-health seizure, on Wheeler. 

That evening, EMTs at the scene of the seizure confirmed Wheeler was in a “normal” mental health state and did not believe she needed to be taken for medical assistance.

“AU will vigorously defend its position and address inaccurate portrayals of its actions,” Bennett stated.

More information on what had happened on the day of the incident will become available from the permitted discovery.

“The goal of the case is to create accountability for what she experienced and also to prevent other students from having the same experience in the future,” Hart said. 

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