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Professor Sues Gu After Losing His Job Says University Should Alter His Duties To Accommodate Disability

Former professor Ferdinand Mitchell thought he was a valued member of the Gonzaga University faculty.

He said he landed some $700,000 in engineering research money, and carried a full load of classes.

That was before three vertebrae went bad in his neck, causing pain so severe, he said, he couldn’t write equations on the blackboard.

Gonzaga dismissed him in 1991 after he failed to keep up his teaching duties.

Now, Mitchell is suing for his old job back, saying Gonzaga should have modified his job to accommodate his disability.

“I don’t think I was treated fairly,” said Mitchell, 57. “I worked 30 years to get to the point where I am. I am not going to quit.”

Neither is Gonzaga. University officials are fighting rather than compromising. But they refuse to explain why the university is taking such a tough stand against a man whose right arm is too weak for a handshake.

“Gonzaga never tries to settle any personnel issues in the media,” said university spokesman Dale Goodwin.

In a two-sentence prepared statement, Goodwin said, “The university considers that it acted reasonably and responsibly toward Dr. Mitchell. The university will vigorously defend against the claims which have been filed.”

GU’s own insurance company examined Mitchell and decided Mitchell could continue as a professor if he were given a flexible schedule and computerized audio-visual projector for his classroom. As a result, the insurance company denied Mitchell’s application for long-term disability benefits. The company said Mitchell should be returned to his job.

Mitchell came to GU in 1983 with a long list of academic credentials. He is a graduate of the University of Florida, UCLA, University of Alabama, USC and the University of California. He holds two doctoral degrees.

He said he awoke one morning in 1988 with an excruciating pain running down his arm. It persisted and became so bad he couldn’t keep teaching.

Doctors discovered three vertebrae in his neck were collapsed, pinching the nerves leading to his arm. Mitchell said he copes with his condition through therapy and treatment.

Still, he can’t stand or sit in the same position for any length of time. He can’t move his head from side to side, and he can’t raise his arm to write on the blackboard, he said.

But Mitchell said he can sit at a desk, face a class, and write equations on a computerized projector.

Mitchell said he is not a malingerer. He asked school officials to modify his job to help him stay in the classroom.

He wanted a light class load, and in exchange, greater responsibility in research and student advising.

Mitchell said GU offered to make him a part-time faculty member, but that would have required Mitchell to give up his faculty chair and tenure, something he was unwilling to do.i

“It was sort of like, ‘How dare you be injured,”’ Mitchell said.

GU’s lawyers are trying to have Mitchell’s case thrown out of U.S. District Court because, they contend, it was filed after the three-year statute of limitations had expired.

If it’s not thrown out, then the university is going to argue that Mitchell was unable to perform the essential functions of his job.

“Accommodation of Dr. Mitchell’s alleged disability in the manner requested by him would not have been feasible and…(would have) created an undue burden on any employer,” GU’s lawyers wrote in their answer to the lawsuit.

Mitchell is asking the court to find Gonzaga in violation of the 1973 federal rehabilitation act, which applies to employers receiving federal funds.

His lawsuit seeks reinstatement, back pay, unspecified damages and attorney fees. He was earning $62,000 a year, including benefits, when he was dismissed.

While he is awaiting the outcome of the suit, Mitchell is studying to become a lawyer through an independent study program. He said he figures if he loses the case, he will need another career.

He prefers teaching. “What I am really good at is being a faculty member,” he said. “I worked my heart out for them for a long time.”

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