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|Professor seeks lab access, damages in lawsuit|
In spite of suffering a stroke in March 2007, Hariharam Mehendale spends six hours a week in the gym and walks a mile or more on days he doesn't work out.
Every day, he's in his office on the third floor of Sugar Hall at the University of Louisiana-Monroe and teaches a graduate-level toxicology course he created when he came to ULM 17 years ago.
Since his stroke, Mehendale says ULM administrators have isolated him from colleagues and students, forbade him from teaching, and refused to allow him access to the research lab he built.
"Often I say, the stroke has treated me kindly because it spared my mental faculties," said Mehendale. "The university has not been that kind to me."
Mehendale sued ULM earlier this month in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, seeking to end what he called discriminatory behavior and to restore access to his lab.
The lawsuit alleges a pattern of treatment from administrators that began shortly after Mehendale suffered his stroke, which, according to Mehendale, is when ULM administrators forbid students and colleagues to contact him while in the hospital. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for lost wages, mental anguish and "extreme/severe emotional distress." Also, the lawsuit requests damages for ULM's "repeated failures to accommodate (Mehendale's) disability, lost grant and patent opportunities, humiliation and embarrassment."
Court documents also detail a September 2008 meeting where, according to Mehendale, ULM Provost Stephen Richters informed Mehendale that his employment at the College of Pharmacy would be terminated.
Mehendale said Richters expressed a belief that the stroke had affected his mental capacity.
Three months after his stroke, doctors from New Orlean's Ochsner Medical Center gave Mehendale a clean bill of mental health.
In June 2007, Dr. Robert Felberg sent ULM administrators a letter clearing Mehendale to return to work.
"Dr. Mehendale has been a stroke patient of mine," Felberg wrote. "From the stroke standpoint, the patient is able to return to work."
Mehendale said the release should have come as no surprise because he had been working from his hospital room at Ochsner -- three days after his stroke.
"Just a few days after my stroke, I had corrected and rewritten manuscripts written by my students," Mehendale said. "They were corrected, sent back, and have been published."
Mehendale said the papers were delivered despite ULM's insistence that students, professors and employees not communicate with him in the hospital.
"They were strictly instructed not to contact me, not to call me, not to visit me," Mehendale said. "I couldn't understand why."
Less than a year after his stroke, Mehendale traveled to New York to present a paper to an international toxicology conference.
Mehendale said he wants ton continue the research he has been conducting for the last 17 years. He wants to work with students as well. Most of all, Mehendale said he wants to remain in the classroom.
"In a faculty member's life, that is the ultimate humiliation, for someone to come tell you, you can't teach anymore," Mehendale said. "To me, that's the lowest point of my life."
ULM officials refused to comment on the allegations contained in Mehendale's lawsuit. The university said it could not discuss personnel matters.
On April 3, the university filed its response to a request for production of documents concerning the Mehendale matter.
In the response, ULM gave little indication of its position on the case. Instead, the response called many of Mehendale's requests "premature".
The response, though, included a potential witness list if the Mehendale suit moved forward.
ULM President James Cofer could join Richters and former Pharmacy School Dean Lamar Pritchard as witnesses, according to ULM's response.
Mehendale said one factor that seems to have helped his cause was a complaint he filed in 2008 with the American Association of University Professionals.
Mehendale said AAUP wrote ULM administrators to voice their concerns over the situation.
"Since then, I don't know if it is because of AAUP's weight bearing or what, but now they let me go teach," Mehendale said. "I have not changed in any other way other than a little bit better physically."
Mehendale said he still does not know how long he has a job or if ULM will continue to employ him.