GREENEVILLE — A former medical student at the James. H. Quillen College of Medicine has filed a federal lawsuit against East Tennessee State University claiming officials discriminated against him due to his race, color and disability and conspired to have him kicked out of the medical school program.
Eddison and Karen Williams filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greeneville on Nov. 26. The lawsuit names ETSU and Dr. Kenneth Olive, the executive associate dean for academic and faculty affairs, as the defendants.
Williams, an African-American and fourth-year medical student, claims ETSU and Olive deprived him of his due process rights, discriminated against him because of his disability (dyslexia), race and color and then retaliated against him for making a formal, discrimination complaint. The Williamses are an interracial couple with two children — an infant and 3-year-old.
According to the lawsuit, Williams began medical school in the fall of 2009 after graduating and receiving an undergraduate degree in the spring of that year. Williams, a U.S. Army reservist, financed his medical education through the Army’s Health Professionals Scholarship Program.
Under the program, Williams had to finish medical school in four years or else pay the scholarship money back to the U.S. Army.
The lawsuit states Williams passed his first two years of medical school and the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam step one boards exam, but at the start of year three (August 2011), Williams was placed under the supervision of an attending medical school professor.
Williams claims the professor was prejudiced against him based on his race and color and used demeaning words and actions toward him. Williams received a failing grade from his attending professor, but took the course again, under a different professor, and passed.
In the spring of 2012, ETSU assigned Olive as Williams’ mentor, who then, according to the lawsuit, engaged in a course of conduct designed to harm his medical career. Olive would constantly give Williams extra written homework assignments and secretly kept track of all of the things he got wrong while marginalizing all the things he got right, the lawsuit states.
In the fall of 2012, Williams attended two off-campus medical rotations — the first at Brooke Army Medical Center and the second at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, earning passing grades at both. Afterward, Williams said he chose to defer taking the step two exams until a later date.
According to the lawsuit, Olive convened the Student Promotions Committee to address Williams’ failure to complete the step two exams and produce his grades from Brooke. Williams argues the exam can be taken any time after the fourth year of medical school and for some reason, the grades from Brooke were delayed.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the committee met in secret and voted for Williams to be dismissed from ETSU’s medical school. Williams was not told about the meeting and was unaware it was taking place. The next day, Williams’ grades from Brooke arrived.
In light of this, instead of canceling a Nov. 28, 2012, dismissal hearing, Williams claims Olive contacted officials at Walter Reed and convinced them to change his passing grades to failing ones, claiming Williams lied about taking the step two exam.
The committee accepted Olive’s testimony at the dismissal hearing and voted to dismiss Williams from the school of medicine.
According to the lawsuit, the dean of the college of medicine upheld the dismissal and Williams appealed again to ETSU’s vice president for health affairs, who gave him a list of requirements to satisfy before he could re-enroll to the college of medicine.
Williams claims the requirements were costly and burdensome, with one being to repeat his third year of medical school.
According to the lawsuit, Williams lost his U.S. Army scholarship, he and his family became homeless and had to go on government assistance. Williams said he and his family had to temporarily move to Oklahoma while he continued to study for the step two exam.
Williams claims ETSU conspired against him to have him removed from the medical school program and failed to follow their own polices and procedures for due process. As a result of ETSU’s action, Williams has lost job opportunities and may never serve as an Army physician.
Williams is seeking an unnamed amount of compensatory and punitive damages along with special damages to repay the U.S. Army.
ETSU spokesman Joe Smith said the university does not comment on pending litigation.