Education Leadership Conference

Psychology, like medicine or law, is a profession in which students' careers depend on their academic performance and subsequent credentials. These high stakes make psychology programs more vulnerable to litigation than other liberal arts departments, said presenters at a 2006 ELC session on legal issues.

"Imagine a student seeking credentials in philosophy," said presenter Ann H. Franke, JD, who advises colleges and universities on risk management as president of Wise Results LLC. "That student is not expecting a lifetime stream of income by virtue of that credential. It really is the professional training programs like psychology that are more likely to be hit with lawsuits." A national expert in higher education law, Franke gained firsthand experience with such cases in her previous work with United Educators Insurance, a company insuring over 800 colleges and universities nationwide.

Legal action can crop up over grades, key exams such as doctoral comprehensives, dissertations, the evaluation of students' clinical skills and academic dismissals. It can also surface over the bestowing of awards and honors.

"The intersection of law and psychology is not always smooth," said Nathalie Gilfoyle, JD, APA's general counsel. "Many times when faculty are faced with taking academic action involving a student performance problem, they may end up feeling caught between their academic judgment based on their experience and duty to the profession and their fear of litigation."

To avoid the courtroom, Franke suggested that the best defense is good preparation. She outlined several tips for how psychology departments and faculty can prevent legal trouble:

  • Know your institution's policies and procedures. Follow them in both verbal and written communication. "In court, consistency in the application of your rules is a key element in the defensibility of your decisions," said Franke.

  • Understand the grievance and appeal process. "It may reduce your level of anxiety to understand what the process is before you have to go through it," Franke noted. In addition, seek guidance from your dean, chair or campus counsel as needed.

  • Don't improvise in accommodating students with disabilities. Work with your school's Office of Disabled Student Services to ensure that accommodations are appropriate and consistent across campus.

  • Share negative information only with those who need to know. This can help you avoid potential defamation charges down the line,said Franke.

  • Carefully evaluate off-campus placements. Because they are off-campus, internships, externships and clinical programs sites can be a legal gray area, noted Franke. Determine whether the program area is physically safe, and develop a written agreement with the placement site outlining mutual expectations on communications, evaluations, grievance or harassment procedures and insurance.

  • Keep written records. Careful documentation will be valuable information should a case escalate to litigation, said Franke.

--E. Packard