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Mittra v. University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

November 06, 1998

KAUSHIK MITTRA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF MEDICINE AND DENTISTRY OF NEW JERSEY, DR. RICHARD N. BUCHANAN, DR. PAUL J. DESJARDINS, DR. IVAL MCDERMOTT, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND JOHN DOE 1-20, JANE DOE 1-20, DEFENDANTS.



Before Judges Baime, Conley and A.a. Rodr¡guez. *fn1

The opinion of the court was delivered by: The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, P.j.a.d.

[9]    Argued October 21, 1998

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County.

Plaintiff appeals from a summary judgment dismissing his claims against the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) and several of its administrators and employees. At issue is whether a university's dissemination of a handbook outlining its pupil performance evaluation process creates a contractual relationship between the school and its students in the context of a dismissal for academic reasons. We hold that the relationship between the university and its students should not be analyzed in purely contractual terms. As long as the student is afforded reasonable notice and a fair hearing in general conformity with the institution's rules and regulations, we defer to the university's broad discretion in its evaluation of academic performance.

I.

Plaintiff, a former dental student, brought this action against UMDNJ and individual administrators and employees seeking a declaratory judgment and monetary damages. All of plaintiff's claims were grounded in the contention that UMDNJ improperly dismissed him for academic reasons. In the first three counts of his complaint, plaintiff asserted that defendants breached the provisions of the 1995-1997 Dental Student Handbook which, he alleged, constituted a contract between UMDNJ and its students. In other counts, plaintiff alleged conspiracy, interference with prospective economic advantage, and intentional and malicious tortious misconduct. The Law Division granted defendants' motion for summary judgment without hearing argument. Plaintiff moved for reconsideration, contending that he had been misinformed of the scheduled argument date and was not afforded the opportunity to file opposing papers. Plaintiff's motion was granted, and the matter was fully briefed and argued. The Law Division again granted summary judgment, finding that there was no genuine issue of material fact and that defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The essential facts are not in dispute. Plaintiff was enrolled in the dental school's five year program. This program requires the student to complete the first two years of the curriculum in three years. The student must then complete his "junior" and "senior" years in the remaining two years.

UMDNJ customarily issued a student handbook. The 1995-1997 Dental Student Handbook contained a section or chapter describing the institution's student evaluation process. Under the applicable guidelines, the Student Academic Performance Committee (SAPC) was charged with the responsibility of determining whether students satisfied appropriate academic performance levels. In the event of inadequate performance, the SAPC had discretion to (1) permit remediation of a D or F grade, (2) place the student on academic probation, (3) issue an academic warning, (4) allow the student to repeat the academic year, (5) recommend dismissal of a student, (6) promote the student notwithstanding his poor academic performance, or (7) take other actions that are not relevant to this appeal.

The procedures dealing with the dismissal of a student were specifically set forth in the handbook. The SAPC had the authority to recommend to the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs that a student be dismissed. The SAPC could make such a recommendation only upon a finding that the "student's overall academic or professional performance warrant[ed] dismissal or when the student's completion of failed courses [could] not be accomplished within the required five academic years." Although the record is unclear, it appears that the SAPC was to make such a determination in the form of an initial decision, from which the student could appeal. In the event that the SAPC sustained its initial decision, the student could seek review from the Executive Council. Apparently, the Executive Council had the final authority to dismiss a student for poor academic performance. At various stages of the process, the student had the right to an attorney and a faculty advocate.

At the time of his dismissal, plaintiff was in his fourth year. However, his academic record was poor. In his third year, plaintiff had received one F grade and two D grades. Because his grades were unsatisfactory, the SAPC recommended plaintiff's dismissal. The Executive Council refused to adopt the SAPC's recommendation, and instead directed plaintiff to remediate his grades during a six week summer remediation program. Plaintiff successfully remediated his grades during the summer months of 1995 and was promoted to his fourth, or junior, year.

Plaintiff's academic performance in the fourth year clinical program was abysmal. By a letter dated November 6, 1995, Dr. Paul Desjardins, the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, apprised plaintiff of his unsatisfactory performance in seven classes. Desjardins advised plaintiff of the existence of several tutorial programs that offered opportunities for improvement. On the next day, Dr. Ival McDermott, the Group Practice Administrator in charge of the clinical program, sent plaintiff a memorandum requesting an appointment to discuss the student's poor performance, excessive patient cancellations and lack of productivity. In a separate memorandum sent to Desjardins, McDermott acknowledged that plaintiff had missed the clinical program's orientation classes because he was engaged in his remediation courses over the summer months. McDermott emphasized, however, that plaintiff's poor performance pertained to other problems. These problems included plaintiff's ignorance of very elementary procedures and principles - matters that should have been learned early on in the dental school program. In a subsequent letter to plaintiff, McDermott advised him of his unsatisfactory grade in patient care and management. McDermott noted that plaintiff's failing grade was the result of excessive cancellations, patient complaints of slow progress and plaintiff's failure to adhere to sound infection control procedures.

On January 16, 1996, the SAPC met to consider plaintiff's poor academic and clinical performance. Plaintiff had received an F in one course, unsatisfactory grades in three others, and had an unsatisfactory performance in four clinical departments. In its initial decision, the SAPC recommended plaintiff's dismissal.

On January 22, 1996, the SAPC assembled to consider plaintiff's appeal. Plaintiff did not attend, apparently because he found the hearing date "inconvenient." We need not describe in detail the substantial evidence of plaintiff's poor performance considered by the Committee. Suffice it to say, the SAPC determined that it would be virtually impossible for plaintiff to satisfactorily complete the dental school's curriculum requirements within the five years mandated by the program.

On February 7, 1996, the Executive Council heard plaintiff's appeal. We again perceive no need to recount the proceedings in detail. Led by the Dean of the dental school, Dr. Richard Buchanan, the Council reviewed plaintiff's failing grades and inadequate performance, as summarized by Dr. Desjardins. Desjardins was excused from the meeting after his presentation. Plaintiff, assisted by his attorney and faculty advisor, offered explanations for his poor academic and clinical performance. The Council then rendered its decision dismissing plaintiff from the student body. In its decision, the Council emphasized the importance of detecting professional incompetence and unsatisfactory performance at an early stage. The Council observed that ...


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