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Ria Mucci v. Rutgers

March 3, 2011

RIA MUCCI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
RUTGERS, THE STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW JERSEY SCHOOL OF LAW- CAMDEN, XYZ CORPORATION 1-5 (A FICTITIOUS CORPORATION), DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kugler, United States District Judge:

NOT FOR PUBLICATION (Doc. No. 18)

OPINION

This matter arises out of Defendant Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey School of Law-Camden's ("Rutgers") dismissal of Plaintiff Ria Mucci from law school in 2002. Rutgers dismissed Plaintiff for failure to maintain the required minimum grade-point average ("GPA"). Plaintiff claims that Rutgers dismissed her and subsequently denied her numerous petitions for readmission in violation of her Fourteenth Amendment due processes rights and in breach of an implied state-law agreement between students and universities. Plaintiff also asserts state and federal disability discrimination claims based on Rutgers' alleged failure to provide her with reasonable testing accommodations, and claims for fraud and detrimental reliance stemming from a course she audited in 2007. This matter is presently before the Court pursuant to Rutgers' motion for summary judgment dismissing Plaintiff's claims. For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants Rutgers' motion for summary judgment.

I.BACKGROUND

Plaintiff enrolled as a full-time, first year law student at Rutgers in the fall of 1997. She struggled academically at various times while enrolled at Rutgers and was ultimately dismissed in June 2002 for failure to obtain a satisfactory GPA. She submitted petitions requesting readmission in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008, but Rutgers denied all six requests.

A.The Law School's Academic Regulations

A student's academic performance at Rutgers is governed by the law school's Academic Rules and Regulations (the "Academic Regulations"). Rule 11.3 of the Academic Regulations provides that a "student shall be considered to be on warning if the student fails to earn a 2.0 average for the first semester of an academic year," and "[a]t the end of the next semester of enrollment, the student shall be reclassified as either in good standing or as dismissed." (Cert. of Craig N. Oren Ex. A, at 23). Rule 11.4(a) provides that a "student who earns less than a 2.0 average in an academic year shall be dismissed." (Id.). If a student is dismissed under Rule 11.4, he has a right to be automatically readmitted on probation if: (1) "the student's average during the academic year for which the student was dismissed was 1.75 or better;" and (2) "the student has not previously earned less than a 2.0 average for a year." (Id. at 24). A student who does not satisfy those requirements for automatic readmission "may be readmitted only by petitioning the Committee on Scholastic Standing for re-admission on probation." (Id.). Rule 14 provides the following standard and procedures for deciding petitions for readmission:

The Committee may grant such a petition if it finds that the student has demonstrated sufficient potential so that if re-admitted there would be a substantial likelihood that the student would satisfactorily complete his or her law studies. In addition, the Committee may in its discretion, consider whether and to what extent the student has complied with the Rules and Regulations of the law school. In deciding whether to grant such a petition, . . . the Committee shall consider all relevant facts shown by the student or otherwise presented to it. Relevant facts include those that bear on the student's aptitude, motivation for legal studies, or work habits, on any circumstances that have interfered with the student's performance in law school, on means that were available for ameliorating such circumstances, and on the likelihood that such circumstances will not exist in the future. The Committee may also consider the student's performance at the law school and in previous education, as well as the student's work history. The student has the burden of demonstrating all facts necessary to support a petition for re-admission. (Id.). The Committee on Scholastic Standing ("CSS") is composed of four faculty members appointed by the Dean and one student member in good academic standing appointed by the Student Bar Association.

The CSS does not have jurisdiction to decide issues of academic integrity. Those issues are governed by the law school's Code of Student Conduct, which provides comprehensive procedures for disposition of charges of academic dishonesty. When a charge is filed against a student, the Dean of Students must conduct a preliminary review to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for the charge to proceed to a hearing. Substantiated charges are disposed of by a hearing before a board of faculty members and students, with a hearing officer presiding. The hearing officer is usually an independent outside attorney.

B.Plaintiff's Initial Leave of Absence from Law School

Plaintiff performed poorly during her first semester in the Fall of 1997. She received a D in all four of her classes and a term GPA well below 2.0. Pursuant to Rule 11.3, the CSS notified her that she was "on warning" because of her grades and that unless she achieved a 2.0 average by the end of the academic year, she would be dismissed and lose all credit for the year. Due to Plaintiff's poor performance, which she attributed to certain personal problems relating to her health and divorce/custody proceedings, Sybil James, then Dean of Students, and Professor

Oren, the CSS chair, counseled her to apply for a leave of absence. In February 1998, Plaintiff applied for a leave of absence, and the CSS granted Plaintiff's request.

C.Plaintiff's Return to Law School

In May 1998, Plaintiff petitioned the CSS for readmission to Rutgers in the Fall of 1998. The CSS held a hearing in July 1998. After the hearing, the CSS determined that Plaintiff was still embroiled in her matrimonial proceedings and that the problems associated with her matrimonial situation continued to impose a substantial burden on her. The CSS therefore denied Plaintiff's petition for readmission in the Fall of 1998 and recommended that Plaintiff use the year to resolve her divorce proceedings.

In May 1999, Plaintiff petitioned the CSS for readmission in the Fall of 1999. After a hearing, the CSS granted Plaintiff's petition subject to certain conditions. The CSS placed Plaintiff "on warning" for the academic year and required Plaintiff to retake the entire first-year curriculum. The CSS also required Plaintiff to meet regularly with the then-Director of the Academic Success Program, Susan Williams-Lewonski.

D.Plaintiff's Performance upon Returning to Law School

Near the end of the Fall 1999 semester, Ms. Williams-Lewonski sent Professor Oren an email expressing concern regarding Plaintiff's performance. She reported that Plaintiff was consistently late to meetings, was not keeping up with class work and attendance, and was not taking responsibility for her studies. She concluded that Plaintiff "was so far behind in her school work that it's silly." (Oren Cert. Ex. E, at 2).

Plaintiff obtained a 2.643 average for the Fall 1999 semester, but received a D in Legal Research and Writing. In the Spring 2000 semester, Plaintiff initially received an F in Property and a 1.571 average for the semester, which gave her a 2.107 cumulative average for the year.

Because Plaintiff barely achieved the 2.0 average necessary to return to academic "good standing," the CSS notified Plaintiff that her "performance this year, while meeting our minimum requirements, indicates the need for further improvement . . . ." (Oren Cert. Ex. G). Plaintiff's Property grade was subsequently changed to a D, raising her cumulative average to2.250.

Plaintiff took Professional Responsibility during the Summer 2000 semester and received a C. During the Fall 2000 semester, Plaintiff achieved a 2.25 term average but received an F in Employment Discrimination Law.*fn1 During the Spring 2001 semester, Plaintiff obtained a 2.938 average and received grades ranging from a C to a B. Consequently, she remained in academic "good standing" throughout the year. Plaintiff took three courses during the Summer 2001 semester and performed well, obtaining a term average of 3.438, including an A in Elder Law.

E. Plaintiff's Dismissal from Law School

Plaintiff's academic performance deteriorated dramatically during her third year. In the Fall 2001 semester, her term average was 1.693, including two D's in Federal Income Tax and Patent Law I. Because her term average was below 2.0, the CSS placed her "on warning" pursuant to Rule 11. The CSS informed her that pursuant to the Academic Regulations she would be dismissed from Rutgers if she did not achieve a 2.0 average for the academic year. The CSS advised Plaintiff that its members were willing to counsel her regarding her studies and impressed upon Plaintiff that her future in the legal profession was at stake. Plaintiff met with Dean James in February 2002 to discuss her "on warning" status. However, her academic performance did not improve during the Spring 2002 semester. Her average for the semester was1.434, including an F in Law and Biomedical Ethics. Her GPA for the year was 1.580.

The parties dispute the basis for Plaintiff's F in Law and Biomedical Ethics. Professor David M. Frankford graded the course based on a single final take-home exam. The exam included two questions. One question was a "policy" question and the other was an "issue-spotting" question. The exam instructions stated that students were to do no research for the examination after it was distributed. The exam was graded on an anonymous basis using blind grading numbers. When Professor Frankford initially graded the exams, he became suspicious of an exam answer that contained passages that read like articles in medical journals but did not attribute the content of those passages to any outside sources and did not place the passages in quotation marks. The exam belonged to Plaintiff. Professor Frankford asked the Faculty Librarian to perform internet searches using some of the text from the suspicious passages. The librarian reported to Professor Frankford that he had identified six instances in which text from the exam answer was copied verbatim or almost verbatim from journal articles or other outside sources.

Professor Frankford then submitted the grades for his class, including an F for Plaintiff's exam. He subsequently sent an email to Dean James stating that he wished to bring plagiarism charges against the then-unidentified student and that he believed that the student violated the exam instructions by conducting outside research after the exam was distributed. In that email, Professor Frankford explained how he arrived at Plaintiff's grade: "On the merits, the answer was very poor. Aside from the plagiarism, the quality of the answer combined with the violation of my rules would result in a grade of F." (Cert of David M. Frankford Ex. A).

Dean James notified Plaintiff that Professor Frankford had brought two charges against her: one for plagiarism and one for violating his exam instructions by conducting outside research after the exam was distributed. Dean James told Plaintiff that a preliminary review would be conducted to determine whether to proceed with the charges. In response, Plaintiff provided Dean James with printed materials that she purportedly downloaded from the internet before the exam was distributed. Plaintiff pointed out that the date on the materials preceded the date of the exam, and, therefore, she had not violated the exam instructions regarding outside research.

After conferring with Dean James, Professor Frankford agreed to regrade Plaintiff's exam on the assumption that she had not violated his instructions. Professor Frankford certifies that after he reread the exam:

My assessment did not change: it deserved the grade of 'F' on the merits separate and apart from any possible plagiarism or violation of the examination instructions. The answer to the issue-spotting question was so utterly deficient that the limited responsive information provided in the answer to the policy question was insufficient to pull the overall exam grade up from 'F', issues of plagiarism or violating the test instructions aside. (Frankford Cert. ¶ 15). On May 21, 2002, Professor Frankford and other administrators met with Plaintiff and told her that her grade was an "F on the merits of her answers." (Id. ¶ 16).

Plaintiff's GPA for the 2001-02 academic year was 1.580. Thus, on June 3, 2002, the CSS informed Plaintiff that she was dismissed from Rutgers pursuant to Rule 11.4 because her GPA for the year was below the 2.0 minimum. Moreover, because Plaintiff's average was below 1.75, she did not qualify for automatic reenrollment, and the CSS informed Plaintiff that she was required to petition for reenrollment if she wished to complete her law degree. Because the CSS dismissed Plaintiff based on her GPA unrelated to Professor Frankford's charges of academic dishonesty, Dean James determined that the academic integrity charges were moot and no proceedings were necessary unless Plaintiff was readmitted.

F.Plaintiff's Subsequent Petitions for Readmission

Plaintiff timely petitioned for readmission on June 20, 2002. The CSS held a hearing on July 16, 2002. Plaintiff and her attorney appeared at the hearing and the CSS gave Plaintiff the opportunity to present whatever information and materials she desired. Plaintiff told the CSS that her academic difficulties were caused by the illnesses of two of her children during the Fall 2001 semester, her own illness in December 2001, and two deaths within her family during the Spring 2002 exam period. The CSS determined that Plaintiff failed to satisfy her burden in support of readmission. Specifically, the CSS found Plaintiff's explanations regarding her poor performance incredible, and that Plaintiff failed to demonstrate a "substantial likelihood" that she would satisfactorily complete her studies as required by Rule 11.4. (Oren. Cert. Ex. A). By letter dated July 16, 2002, the CSS notified Plaintiff of its decision denying her petition. (Oren Cert. Ex. L). The letter did not provide an explanation for the CSS's decision. It simply stated that the CSS had voted to deny the petition "only after careful consideration of [Plaintiff's] petition." (Id.).

On June 9, 2003, Plaintiff petitioned for readmission for the Fall 2003 semester.*fn2 The CSS held a hearing on July 9, 2003. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing, and the CSS provided her with an opportunity to present whatever information or materials she desired. In her petition, Plaintiff asserted that she had recently been diagnosed with Type II Adult Onset Diabetes. She stated that she was previously unaware of the condition, but that it was the "overriding cause which severely impaired . . . [her] performance" during the 2001-02 academic year. (Oren. Cert. Ex. M). In support of Plaintiff's petition, she submitted a letter from a medical doctor stating that she was conclusively diagnosed with diabetes and that it was the doctor's professional opinion based on Plaintiff's description of her health during law school -- particularly a loss of energy during examinations -- that she suffered from diabetes during law school.

The CSS rejected Plaintiff's petition for readmission. It concluded that Plaintiff's diabetic condition was an incredible explanation for her poor academic performance. For example, the CSS reasoned that if diabetes was the cause of her poor performance, she should have performed better on take-home examinations because they generally afford students more time to complete answers. However, the CSS found no material difference between Plaintiff's performance on take-home exams and in-class exams. Plaintiff requested reconsideration of the decision. The CSS rejected Plaintiff's request for reconsideration in August 2003.

The next year, in May 2004, Plaintiff submitted another petition for readmission through her attorneys. In support of her petition, she included a Psychological Assessment Report from The Psychological Clinic at Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology (the "Assessment Report") and a letter from two staff members at the clinic. The Assessment Report states that the Clinic evaluated Plaintiff at her request because she was "hoping that with adequate documentation of her test anxiety and personal problems that she was experiencing during the [2002] spring semester, [Rutgers] will allow her to graduate or at least re-take the spring courses." (Oren Cert. Ex. 0, at 1). The Clinic interviewed Plaintiff and administered various intelligence, memory, and personality tests. The Clinic concluded that "[t]he assessment results did not yield specific evidence of Ms. Mucci's anxiety adversely affecting her performance under timed testing situations." (Oren Cert. Ex. O). The Clinic nevertheless noted that Plaintiff self-reported anxiety symptoms during law school and that those symptoms may be consistent with an anxiety disorder that manifests only under greater stress than she experienced during the clinical testing. The Clinic also found that "Ms. Mucci's self-report of anxious symptoms was not sufficiently severe to warrant an anxiety disorder diagnosis . . . although she would likely qualify for a diagnosis of adjustment disorder with anxious features." (Oren Cert. Ex. O). The Clinic ultimately reached the following conclusion and recommendation:

Ms. Mucci evidenced intellectual abilities that are conducive to completion of a law degree. However, she also expressed a great deal of anxiety in her personal life and during the testing situation, which could have negatively impacted her academic performance. Although additional time accommodations have been somewhat helpful to Ms. Mucci in maximizing her potential, it seems as if her stress has reached a level where these accommodations are no longer adequate to address her difficulties. It is difficult to ascertain her typical level of anxiety in a given semester, since her dismissal from law school has apparently created more stress than usual. However, the amount of cumulative stress that was created during the final year, when Ms. Mucci experienced the most difficulty, was no doubt greater than normal to her. Her performance during this particularly emotionally demanding time is likely not indicative of her true potential. Active participation in therapy would probably serve to reduce Ms. Mucci's anxiety to a degree that she would be able to return for a semester and successfully complete the courses required to obtain her law degree.

(Oren Cert. Ex. O).*fn3

The CSS held a hearing in July 2004 regarding Plaintiff's petition. Plaintiff and her counsel appeared and the CSS gave them an opportunity to present any information or materials they desired. The CSS unanimously denied Plaintiff's petition. Professor Oren identifies two reasons for the CSS's decision. First, the CSS was "troubled" by several perceived inaccuracies or misrepresentations in Plaintiff's petition. (Oren Cert. ¶ 40). For example, Plaintiff's petition states that the law school "ignored" her "difficulties with time management and test anxiety." (Id. ¶ 41). The CSS found that this statement was "simply untrue" because Plaintiff had "been given test accommodations in the form of time-and-a-half and semi-private, quiet testing rooms for her entire law school career for all in-class, timed exams." (Id.). The CSS also found Plaintiff's claim that her academic struggles were caused by "adjustment disorder with anxious features" to be incredible because: (1) Plaintiff offered those explanations for the first time in her petition even though the supporting medical documentation predated her earlier petition; and (2) the documentation did not attribute Plaintiff's academic difficulties squarely to any personality disorders. (Id. ¶¶ 43-44). The CSS was also troubled by the fact that Plaintiff's petition did not reference her prior explanations for bad performance; namely, her alleged illness during the Fall 2001 exams, her children's health issues during the Fall 2001 semester, and the deaths of relatives during her Spring 2002 exams. Those inconsistencies "reinforced the CSS's sense that [Plaintiff] was looking for reasons to use as a way to excuse her poor performance rather than focusing on her own responsibilities as a student, on whether her study skills were deficient, on whether she was properly organized, and the like." (Id. ¶ 48).

Second, the CSS found that even if Plaintiff's difficulties could be credibly attributed to her anxiety and/or adjustment disorders, she presented no evidence that she had taken steps to deal with those problems. For example, the Assessment Report concluded that "[a]ctive participation in therapy would probably serve to reduce [Plaintiff's] anxiety to a degree that she would be able to return for a semester and successfully complete . . . her law degree." (Oren Cert. Ex. O). The CSS noted, however, that "[t]here was no information before the CSS that [Plaintiff] had continued in any ...


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