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McMahon v. Rutgers, State University of New Jersey

United States District Court, Third Circuit

November 4, 2013

PATRICK McMAHON, Plaintiff,
v.
RUTGERS, THE STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW JERSEY and SUSAN W. SALMOND, Defendants.

OPINION

STANLEY R. CHESLER, District Judge.

This matter is before the court on the motion for summary judgment brought by Defendants Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey[1] and Susan W. Salmond ("Rutgers" and "Salmond" and, collectively, "Defendants"), pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a). [Docket Entry 56.] Plaintiff Patrick McMahon ("McMahon") has opposed. [Docket Entry 62.] Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78, the Court will rule on the papers submitted, and without oral argument. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion will be granted.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Patrick McMahon is a decorated former Air Force captain. This lawsuit, originally filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey and removed to this Court, arises out of McMahon's 2010 dismissal from Rutgers' graduate-level Certified Registered Nurse Anesthesia Program ("CRNA Program"). McMahon was dismissed after receiving four grades worse than "B, " ( e.g., "C, " "C, " etc.), which under grading policies in effect at the time, mandated his dismissal from the CRNA Program. McMahon alleges that Defendants' decision to dismiss him from the CRNA Program breaches an implied contract between himself and Rutgers and violates his rights under the federal and New Jersey constitutions. McMahon further alleges Defendants discriminated against him because of his military status, in violation of New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination ("LAD"), N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:5-1 to -49. The relevant facts are as follows:

A. Matriculation Into the CRNA Program

McMahon began his studies at UMDNJ's School of Nursing (the "School of Nursing") in September of 2005, commencing classes in the Adult Nurse Practitioner ("ANP") program. He subsequently graduated from that program with a Master of Science degree in December 2008. In the interim, McMahon matriculated into the School of Nursing's CRNA Program, enrolling in the program in April 2007 and commencing classes in September of that year. A CRNA is a nurse practitioner who receives training and certification in anesthesia care.

B. The Various Grading Policies

The parties join issue over the grading policy or policies that were applicable to McMahon's studies in the CRNA Program. According to McMahon, he was required to maintain a "cumulative 3.0 GPA and at least a C grade in all basic sciences and the anesthesia specialty courses." (Opp. Br. at 4.) McMahon reaches this conclusion by combining two documents. First, McMahon points to a CRNA Program "Policy and Procedure Manual" with an effective date of January 2007 (2007 PPM"), which contains the above quoted language. (McMahon Cert., Ex. B., at 1.). Second, McMahon relies on a School of Nursing policy document entitled "Satisfactory Academic Progress" and dated April 27, 2009, which states that certain "[s]tandards for Satisfactory Academic Progress... are applicable for the duration of the student's continuous matriculation in the same program...." (Varas Cert., Ex. A.) McMahon asserts that the 2009 Satisfactory Academic Policy effectively locks in the grade requirements that were in place on the date that he enrolled in the CRNA program; as such, he only needed to maintain a 3.0 GPA and get "Cs" or better to remain in good academic standing. In short, McMahon argues that the 2009 Satisfactory Academic Progress policy retroactively bound Defendants to the minimum-grade requirements contained in the January 2007 PPM.

Defendants, on the other hand, point to two different policy documents that establish more stringent grading requirements. The first is a CRNA Program Policy and Procedure Manual issued to students in July 2008 (the "2008 PPM"). Unlike the 2007 PPM, the 2008 PPM affirmatively states that if "a student earns a second course grade below 3.0 (B, 80%)... he/she earns immediate dismissal from the Nurse Anesthesia Program." (Salmond Cert, Ex. A.) The second document Defendants point to is the 2007 School of Nursing Handbook ("2007 Handbook"), which was issued to students and made publicly available in August 2007. ( Id. ¶ 17 & Ex. B.) Similar to the 2008 PPM, the 2007 Handbook provides that a graduate nursing student "may be dismissed" from his academic program for various reasons, including unsafe clinical practice, two terms "with term GPA of less than 3.0, " or "[t]wo course grades of less than B." (See id. at Ex. B., D003679.) Both the 2008 PPM and the 2007 Handbook thus allow for dismissal of a student when that student earns two grades worse than "B." Both documents also expressly state that their contents can be amended, added to, or withdrawn at any time, "affecting current and incoming nurse anesthesia students." (See id. at Ex. A, D003042; id. at Ex. B., D003631 ("The University reserves the right to change any provision, offering or requirement at any time.").)

C. Academic Performance, Military Leave, and Dismissal

McMahon received a "C" in Advanced Physiology at the end of the Fall 2007 semester. In accordance with procedures outlined in the 2007 Handbook, McMahon appealed his grade to the Student Affairs Committee ("SAC").[2] In conjunction with the appeal, McMahon submitted a typed and signed statement that raises a number of issues McMahon had with the manner in which his Advanced Physiology professor, Tom Pallaria ("Pallaria"), evaluated his academic performance. ( Id. at Ex. D.) The statement also alleges that Pallaria made a number of "biased statements" about, inter alia, "old and fat people, " "ethnic minorities, " and "democrats." In the document, McMahon also acknowledges that School of Nursing faculty informed him that the CRNA Program's grading policy had changed in the Fall 2007 semester; McMahon states, however, that "[c]hanging the grading policy midstream does not effectively inform students and create[s] a disadvantage on my part." ( Id. at Ex. D, D004170.)

The SAC rejected McMahon's appeal, recommending that the Advanced Physiology grade be upheld; thereafter, McMahon appealed the grade to Defendant Susan Salmond, then the interim Dean of the School of Nursing. After meeting with McMahon, Salmond informed him that she was upholding the "C" grade, but that he could retake Advanced Physiology in the Fall 2008 semester. Notably, Salmond also informed McMahon that another "course failure" could lead to his dismissal from the School of Nursing. ( Id. at Ex. E.)

McMahon earned a "B" when he retook Advanced Physiology in the Fall 2008 semester. In the Spring 2009 semester, however, McMahon received a "C" grade in his Anesthesiology & Co-Existing Disease course. Again, McMahon appealed his grade to the SAC and Dean Salmond, and again the SAC and Salmond recommended that his grade be upheld. In a letter dated May 21, 2009, Salmond informed McMahon of the decision, and that the SAC was allowing him to retake the course - and not dismissing him from the CRNA Program - because the "C" was "earned... under the old [grading] policy." (Salmond Cert., Ex. H.)

The parties dispute both the particulars of McMahon's academic performance in the Summer 2009 semester and UMDNJ's treatment of McMahon's personal and military commitments during that time period. What is clear from the summary judgment record, however, is that McMahon's mother passed away in late May 2009, and McMahon thereafter engaged in discussions with his instructors to retake or reschedule exams.[3] Shortly thereafter, McMahon was ordered to report for active military duty in Niagara Falls, New York, which he later found out would prevent him from completing the Summer and Fall 2009 semesters. (Salmond Cert., Ex. P, at PS006.) It appears that UMDNJ initially balked at McMahon's request to - at his discretion - either withdraw from the four courses in which he was then enrolled or take an "Incomplete" as his grade. After corresponding with McMahon's attorney, however, UMDNJ allowed McMahon to (1) withdraw from three of his four courses and receive an "Incomplete" in the fourth, [4] and (2) re-enroll in the CRNA program in May 2010, when those four courses would be offered again. (Salmond Cert., Ex. Q, at D000080.)

McMahon did in fact re-enroll in the CRNA Program at the start of the Summer 2010 semester. At the end of the semester, McMahon received a "C" in Pediatric Anesthesia and a "C" in Obstetrics, his third and fourth sub-"B" grades. In accordance with the procedures outlined in the School of Nursing Student Handbook, McMahon appealed the grades to the SAC, appearing before the Committee on August 16, 2010. While the resolution of the Obstetrics grade is unclear from the documentary record, the SAC decided to uphold the "C" earned in Pediatric Anesthesia. As a result of this "C, " the SAC notified McMahon he was dismissed from the CRNA Program for "exceed[ing] the permissible number of failing grades[.]" (Salmond Cert., Ex. V.) The SAC further informed McMahon he could appeal its decisions to Salmond, which he did. McMahon and Salmond met on September 9, 2010, and Salmond notified McMahon that she was upholding the SAC's decision shortly thereafter.

D. Procedural History

McMahon filed suit in New Jersey Superior Court, alleging seven contractual and quasicontractual claims and an eighth claim for discrimination in violation of the LAD. After McMahon amended his Complaint to add due process claims under the federal and New Jersey constitutions, Defendants removed to this Court [Docket Entry 1], [5] and subsequently moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) for judgment on the pleadings on McMahon's LAD claims.[6] [Docket Entry 10.] This Court granted Defendants' motion, dismissing the LAD claims without prejudice. [Docket 18.] McMahon's Third Amended Complaint, filed shortly thereafter, alleged additional facts in support of his ...


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