OPINION BY STABILE, J.:
Appellant, the University of Pittsburgh of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education, appeals from the trial court's orders of May 23 and June 27, 2013.
This dispute arose during Appellee's fifth year as a student in the SDM.
Several days after Appellee signed the consent form for Wright, Appellee was summoned to a meeting with Dr. Marnie Oakley ("Dr. Oakley"), Associate Dean of the SDM. N.T., Preliminary Injunction Hearing, 5/15/13, at 73. A quality care specialist brought the consent form to Dr. Oakley's attention because SDM records indicated that Wright cancelled his dental appointment on the day the form was signed. Id. at 83. At the meeting, Dr. Oakley confronted Appellee with records evincing that Wright cancelled his January 15, 2013 appointment because he had the flu. Id. at 76. Dr. Oakley asked Appellee why Wright would come in to sign a consent form on the same day Wright cancelled a dental appointment due to illness. Id. at 80. Appellee stated that Wright came to the SDM and signed the consent form that day because Wright knew it was important to Appellee. Id. at 80, 82. Appellee also told Dr. Oakley that Wright came in and signed the document at 11:00 or 11:30 a.m. on January 15. Id. at 83. In response, Dr. Oakley informed Appellee that the consent form was signed after 1:00 p.m. Id. at 81, 83. Nevertheless, Appellee continued to maintain that Wright personally signed the document. Id. at 83. Finally, Dr. Oakley confronted Appellee with other documents signed by Wright. Id. at 84. Wright's signatures were consistent except for the signature on the January 15, 2013 consent form. Id. at 84, 86-87. In response, Appellee then admitted that he signed Wright's name on the form. Id. at 87. Dr. Oakley testified that Appellee lied to her more than six times before he finally admitted that he signed the document. Id. at 83. Appellee testified that he was unnerved by the meeting, that Dr. Oakley was hostile, and that he initially misspoke. N.T., 5/14/13, at 84.
Subsequently, Dr. Oakley issued a student violation notice, dated January 18, 2013, documenting Appellee's dishonesty during their meeting. Defendant's Hearing Exhibits H16 and H17. The record further reveals that Appellee had a history of disciplinary and academic troubles at the SDM. On October 23, 2012, the SDM Student Promotions Committee
After the Student Promotions Committee received and reviewed Dr. Oakley's student violation notice, the Committee notified Appellee, in a January 23, 2013 letter authored by Summersgill, of its recommendation that Appellee be dismissed from the SDM. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 3. The letter accused Appellee of forging a patient consent form. Id. In addition, the January 23 letter informed Appellee that he would have the opportunity to appear before the Committee and appeal its recommendation. Id. At his appeal, Appellee established that Wright authorized him to sign the consent form on Wright's behalf. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 5. In a letter of February 12, 2013, the Committee informed Appellee of its unanimous decision to uphold its decision to dismiss Appellee from the SDM. Id. The Committee conceded that Appellee did not commit forgery, inasmuch as he signed Wright's name with Wright's permission. Id. at ¶ 1.b. Nonetheless, the Committee faulted Appellee for failing to note in the record that he signed Wright's name on Wright's behalf, and for repeatedly lying to Dr. Oakley. Id. at ¶¶ 1.b. and 1.c.
Appellee appealed the Committee's decision to Dean Thomas W. Braun ("Dean Braun"), arguing that the Committee improperly changed its justification for dismissing him after he established that he had Wright's permission to sign the consent form. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 6. Dean Braun upheld Appellee's dismissal in a letter dated February 25, 2013. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 7.
Having exhausted his remedies within the SDM, Appellee commenced this action on March 15, 2013 with a complaint in equity and an accompanying motion for a preliminary injunction. In both documents, Appellee alleged that the SDM breached its contract with Appellee and committed a violation of due process. Complaint in Equity, 3/15/13, at ¶ 29; Motion for Preliminary Injunction, 3/15/13, at ¶ 13.
In response to the lawsuit, Dean Braun, in a letter dated March 18, 2013, reinstated Appellee and instructed the Committee to reconsider Appellee's case. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 8. As a result, the trial court postponed the hearing on Appellee's injunction, which the court had scheduled for March 21, 2013. Upon reconsideration of Appellee's case, the Committee once again recommended Appellee's dismissal, in a letter of April 12, 2013. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 10. On May 9, 2013, the Committee denied Appellee's appeal of that decision. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 13. Appellee did not appeal the Committee's decision to Dean Braun. Rather, he proceeded to the preliminary injunction hearing before the trial court on May 14 and 15, 2013.
On May 23, 2013, the trial court entered the first of the two orders on appeal. That
On June 26, 2013, as Appellee's graduation was approaching, the SDM filed in the trial court a motion for emergency relief from the trial court's May 23 preliminary injunction. The June 26 motion was the SDM's request for court approval not to graduate Appellee on time, as required by the trial court's May 23, 2013 injunction. Motion for Emergency Relief from Preliminary Injunction Order, at ¶ 2. The motion alleged that Appellee failed to complete numerous graduation requirements, despite having access to the SDM. Id. at ¶¶ 4, 6, 7. The motion further alleged that Appellee could not complete the necessary requirements by June 30, 2013. Id. at ¶ 8. The motion attached an affidavit from Dr. Jean O'Donnell ("O'Donnell"), Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the SDM. Id. at Exhibit A. The affidavit states that various SDM faculty members reacted with "outrage" at being forced to assign Appellee grades he did not earn so that he could graduate on time. Id. at Exhibit A, ¶ 6. In some instances, SDM administration forced faculty to assign a passing grade where Appellee otherwise would have received a grade of incomplete. Id.
After a telephone conference argument,
On appeal, the SDM argues that Appellee failed to establish several of the essential prerequisites for obtaining a preliminary injunction. We begin with the applicable standard and scope of review. "On appeal from an order granting a preliminary injunction, the scope of review is
Id. (citations omitted).
Thus, we must ascertain whether the trial court abused its discretion in determining that Appellee established all of the essential prerequisites for an injunction. Id. at 577-78. The prerequisites are as follows:
Summit Towne Ctr. v. Shoe Show of Rocky Mount, Inc., 573 Pa. 637, 828 A.2d 995, 1001 (2003) (citations omitted). The
The SDM argues, among other things, that the trial court erred in finding that Appellee had a clear right to relief.
Our first task is to ascertain the contours of the SDM's duty to Appellee. The United States Supreme Court has held that public schools, as state actors, must adhere to the strictures of federal procedural due process. Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 574, 95 S.Ct. 729, 42 L.Ed.2d 725 (1975). "The Fourteenth Amendment forbids the State to deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." Id. at 572, 95 S.Ct. 729. The protection of procedural due process attaches to property interests arising from, inter alia, entitlements created by state statute. Id. The plaintiff high school students in Goss had a property interest in their public education because Ohio statutory law guaranteed residents free education between the ages of five and twenty-one. Id. at 573, 95 S.Ct. 729.
Concerning public institutions of higher learning, the Supreme Court has assumed, without deciding, that students have a constitutionally protected property right in their continued enrollment. Regents of the Univ. of Mich. v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214, 222-23, 106 S.Ct. 507, 88 L.Ed.2d 523 (1985); Board of Curators of the Univ. of Mo. v. Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78, 84-85, 98 S.Ct. 948, 55 L.Ed.2d 124 (1978).
In the case of a dispute between a student and a private school,
Likewise, in Swartley v. Hoffner, 734 A.2d 915 (Pa.Super.1999), this Court wrote that "the relationship between a private educational institution and an enrolled student is contractual in nature; therefore, a student can bring a cause of action against said institution for breach of contract where the institution ignores or violates portions of the written contract." Id. at 919. "The contract between a private institution and a student is comprised of the written guidelines, policies, and procedures as contained in the written materials distributed to the student over the course of their enrollment in the institution." Id.
Both parties cite Boehm, in which two students of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine
The Boehm Court noted, "[t]he general rule [...] has been that where a private university or college establishes procedures for the suspension or expulsion of its students, substantial compliance with those established procedures must be had before a student can be suspended or expelled." Id. at 579. Further, the Court noted that courts are occasionally willing to review the rules and regulations of private colleges to ensure that they "comport with basic notions of due process and fundamental fairness." Id. at 580. Subsequently, as noted above, the Reardon Court declined to import concepts of fundamental fairness into the analysis. Ultimately, the Boehm Court concluded the defendant school adhered to its published code of rights and afforded the student a fundamentally fair hearing that complied with the mandates of due process. Id. at 582.
In any event, "the right of a student to attend a public or private college or university is subject to the condition that he comply with its scholastic and disciplinary requirements[.]" Boehm, 573 A.2d at 578. Said another way, the essence of the bargain between student and university is as follows: "A student has a reasonable expectation based on statements of policy by [the school] and the experience of former students that if he performs the required work in a satisfactory manner and pays his fees he will receive the degree he seeks." Ross v. Penn. State Univ., 445 F.Supp. 147, 152 (M.D.Pa.1978).
Schools have broad discretion to implement and enforce academic and disciplinary rules and regulations. Boehm, 573 A.2d at 578. Courts do not interfere in a school's academic and disciplinary decision-making absent an abuse of discretion. Id. Concerning court review of disciplinary proceedings, this Court has written: "The courts have been very reluctant to interfere with college proceedings concerning internal discipline." Schulman v. Franklin & Marshall Coll., 371 Pa.Super. 345, 538 A.2d 49, 52 (1988) (en banc). "A college is a unique institution which, to the degree possible, must be self-governing
With these principles in mind, we turn to the facts of the present case. The SDM's Student Handbook authorizes dismissal of a student for, among other things, "Unacceptable professional behavior as established by the written policy of the SDM." University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine Student Handbook, 2008-2009, Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 2, at 38. The SDM relied on several portions of the Student Handbook in support of its decision to dismiss Appellee. For example, the Student Handbook incorporates a dental oath, which provides that, among other things, students must "uphold the dignity, honor, and objectives of the dental profession" and "faithfully observe the principles of ethics set forth by the profession[.]" Id. at 2. The Student Handbook also includes a section titled "Guidelines on Academic Integrity," which provides that each student has "an obligation to exhibit
Procedurally, the SDM acted in accord with its Protocol For Grading and Promotion of First Professional Dental Students. Id. at 34. The Committee administers this protocol: "The responsibility of the Student Promotions Committee is to monitor students as to their progress in the first professional program, and ultimately, to determine whether or not the student meets the standards necessary for the practice of Dental Medicine." Id. The Committee has the authority to place a student on academic warning, academic probation, to suspend a student, and to dismiss a student. Id. at 35-37. Dismissal is "immediate release from the School of Dental Medicine." Id. at 37.
The Committee must inform a student in writing of its decision to dismiss. Id. at 38. Students have a right to appear before the Committee to contest the dismissal. Id. at 40. Further, the student can appeal to the Dean after the hearing in front of the Committee. Id. Students have the following rights before the Committee and the Dean:
Id. Furthermore, a student who believes that he or she has not been afforded due process may request the Office of Academic Affairs to review the Committee's action. Id. at 41-42.
As described above, Dr. Oakley issued a January 18, 2013 violation notice to Appellee after she confronted him about Wright's signature. Based on that violation notice and an October 23, 2012 letter informing Appellee that any additional infractions would result in his dismissal from the SDM, the Committee informed Appellee on January 23, 2013 of its decision to dismiss Appellee from the SDM for forging Wright's signature. The Committee afforded Appellee an opportunity to challenge the dismissal, and Appellee appeared before the Committee and successfully established that he signed Wright's name with Wright's permission. Nonetheless, the Committee upheld Appellee's dismissal based on his failure to note in the record
In response to Appellee's commencement of this litigation, Dean Braun asked the Committee to revisit its dismissal decision. Thereafter, the process began anew. The Committee issued a new dismissal notice on April 12, 2013, this time including Appellee's dishonesty in the Dr. Oakley meeting as a basis for Appellee's dismissal. The Committee relied on several provisions included in or incorporated by the SDM Student Handbook. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 10. In particular, the Committee relied on the Dental Oath, which provides that DSM students "will faithfully observe the principles of ethics set forth by the profession." Id. at 1. Likewise, the Committee cited the SDM Honor Code, which prohibits "falsifying data or reports" and requires students to "cooperate in the investigation or disposition of any allegation of violations of the Honor Code." Id. The Committee also relied on the American Dental Association principle of veracity. Id.
The Committee further explained: "There is a long documented history of counseling and warnings about your academic abilities, your clinical skills, your adherence to clinic policies, and your ethics." Id. The Committee cited fourteen documented instances in which Appellee received "counseling for clinical and/or ethical deficiencies" during his SDM career, up to and including the January 18, 2013 violation notice from Dr. Oakley. Id. at 2. The Committee faulted Appellee for giving the false impression that Wright personally signed the informed consent document, and for repeatedly lying to Dr. Oakley. Id. Appellee appealed once again, and the Committee upheld its April 12, 2013 dismissal. Appellee did not exercise his right to appeal once again to Dean Braun.
While disavowing any contractual obligation to Appellee, the SDM argues that it proceeded in accordance with established SDM procedures as set forth in the student handbook. The SDM also argues that Appellee's handling of Wright's informed consent and his dishonesty to Dr. Oakley were sufficient justifications for Appellee's dismissal from the SDM, especially in light of Appellee's past history at the SDM. Appellee counters that the SDM occasionally permits students to sign forms on behalf of patients, and that he therefore did nothing wrong. Further, he argues that he merely misspoke to Dr. Oakley, owing to his nervousness. Appellee further argues that the SDM cannot cite any written policy expressly prohibiting dishonesty to a professor unless the student is under oath.
Having conducted a thorough review of the record and applicable law, we discern no apparently reasonable grounds in support of the trial court's injunction. The SDM student handbook permits dismissal for unprofessional conduct as set forth in the SDM's written policy. As described above, several portions of the handbook, including the dental oath and the incorporation of the ADA's principles of ethics, require students to conduct themselves with integrity. We have no difficulty in concluding that Appellee's repeated dishonesty
Assuming a binding contract exists between the SDM and Appellee, it comprises the written policies and procedures provided to Appellee in the student handbook. Swartley, 734 A.2d at 919. The record reflects that the SDM complied with the procedure set forth in its student handbook. The SDM dismissed him for his dishonesty to Dr. Oakley, in addition to a host of other violations that led the SDM to issue him a last chance warning letter. In other words, Appellee's dishonesty to Dr. Oakley was a sufficient basis for dismissal under the letter of the student handbook, and the SDM followed its written procedure in arriving at its dismissal decision. Appellee has failed to establish that the SDM dismissed him on a basis not specified in the student handbook. Thus, Appellee has failed to establish a clear right to relief and the trial court, on the facts of this case, erred in interfering with the SDM's internal disciplinary decision-making.
Under a due process analysis, the same conclusion obtains. The SDM afforded Appellee notice of the charges against him and an opportunity to be heard. Appellee received an additional opportunity to be heard after he defeated the forgery charge. Appellee complains that he was not initially on notice that he could be dismissed for his dishonesty to Dr. Oakley. To the extent that the SDM denied Appellee due process in this regard, it cured its error when Dean Braun asked the Committee to revisit its dismissal decision. Appellee's argument offers no other basis upon which this Court could conclude that he was denied due process, and the record does not reflect that Appellee asked the Office of Academic Affairs to determine whether he was denied due process, as was his right under the student handbook.
In summary, we have concluded that Appellee failed to establish a clear right to relief, and that the trial court erred in interfering with the SDM's internal disciplinary proceedings. Since we conclude that no apparently reasonable grounds support the preliminary injunction, we vacate the trial court's May 23, 2013 order. The June 27, 2013 order simply denied the SDM's request for relief from the May 23, 2013 injunction. Since we are vacating the May 23 injunction, we vacate the June 27, 2013 order as well. Finally, we remand to the trial court for litigation of the merits of Appellee's complaint in equity.
Orders vacated. Case remanded. Jurisdiction relinquished.
WECHT, J. files a Concurring Opinion.
CONCURRING OPINION BY WECHT, J.:
I join the sound and thorough opinion of the learned majority. I write separately to note my additional view that the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine ("SDM") is entitled to revoke Appellee's Doctorate of Dental Medicine.
The thrust of the majority's opinion validates the SDM's handling of this matter. Through its May 23, 2013 and June 27,
A thorough review of the law and the facts applicable to this case convinces me that the trial court's actions effectively compelled the SDM to shoehorn an otherwise unqualified student into degree status. In combination, the May 23 and June 27, 2013 orders communicated emphatically that the trial court would show no tolerance of any step taken by the SDM to place any requirements in the way of Appellee's graduation, and effectively commanded the conferral of a dentist's degree upon Appellee. Anything short of a degree award presumably would have exposed the SDM to contempt proceedings.
If our law does not countenance micromanagement and intrusion by the judiciary into a university's assessment of its own academic and disciplinary requirements (provided good cause is shown and due process is afforded), then a university must be free to revoke a degree which it was improperly forced to confer and which was therefore void ab initio. It can hardly be disputed that the authority given to an institution of higher learning to confer a degree carries with it the concomitant authority to revoke a degree, provided the institution shows good cause and follows lawful procedure, as the majority establishes occurred in this case. See, e.g., Waliga v. Board of Trustees of Kent State University, 488 N.E.2d 850, 852-53, 22 Ohio St.3d 55, 57-58 (1986); accord Crook v. Baker, 813 F.2d 88, 91-94 (6th Cir.1987).
For the foregoing reasons, and for the reasons ably detailed by the majority, I join in the majority's decision to vacate the May 23, 2013 and June 27, 2013 orders. Having determined that the plain effect of the trial court's actions was effectively to compel the SDM to confer a degree upon an ineligible student, I respectfully disassociate myself from comments in the majority opinion suggesting that the SDM's entitlement to revoke the degree remains an open question (See Majority Op. at 724 n. 3), and asserting that the SDM chose to change Appellee's grades rather than being forced to do so by the trial court. (See id. at 727, n. 7).
Overland Enter., Inc. v. Gladstone Partners, LP, 950 A.2d 1015, 1019-20 (Pa.Super.2008) (quoting Mazzie v. Commonwealth, 495 Pa. 128, 432 A.2d 985, 988 (1981)). A mandatory injunction is an "extraordinary" remedy that "should be utilized only in the rarest of cases." Id. at 1019. The order on appeal arguably has elements of both. The trial court prevented the SDM from dismissing Appellee, but also mandated that the SDM graduate him on time in order to prevent the SDM from retaliating against Appellee. In the main text, we have analyzed the trial court's order under the standard applicable to prohibitive injunctions.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Mooney v. Temple University, 448 Pa. 424, 292 A.2d 395 (1972), analyzed the Temple University — Commonwealth Act, 24 P.S. § 2510-1 — 12, which is substantively very similar to the University of Pittsburgh Act. The Supreme Court held that the Temple Act did not render Temple a state agency as that term is defined in the Inspection and Copying Records Act, 65 P.S. § 66.1 et. seq. Id. at 398-401.
On the other hand, the Third Circuit has treated the University of Pittsburgh as a state actor in several cases. In Krynicky v. University of Pittsburgh, 742 F.2d 94, 103 (3d Cir. 1984), cert. denied, 471 U.S. 1015, 105 S.Ct. 2018, 85 L.Ed.2d 300 (1985), the Third Circuit held that the Act rendered the school a state actor for purposes of 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. That is, the Act created a symbiotic relationship between the school and the state such that the school acted under color of state law in denying tenure to a professor. Id. at 96, 103; see also, Braden v. Univ. of Pittsburgh, 552 F.2d 948 (3d Cir.1977).
In a single paragraph, the SDM asserts that, as a state-related public institution, its handbook does not form a contract with its students. Appellant's Brief at 40 (citing Tran v. State Sys. of Higher Ed., 986 A.2d 179, 183 (Pa.Commw.2009)). West Chester University, the defendant in Tran, is part of the State System of Higher Education, pursuant to 24 P.S. § 20-2002-A, and therefore is a Commonwealth agency. Id. at 183-84. Since the University of Pittsburgh is a state-related school, Tran is inapposite. Moreover, if the SDM was correct in its reliance on Tran, it arguably should have filed this appeal in the Commonwealth Court.
In any event, we are without the benefit of detailed briefing and argument on whether we should treat the University of Pittsburgh as public or private. In this case, as we will demonstrate in the main text, the SDM's status as either public or private would not alter the outcome of this appeal. We therefore express no opinion on whether the University of Pittsburgh, and by extension the SDM, is a public or private school for purposes of our analysis. We observe, however, that the University of Pittsburgh should not expect to use its unique state-related status to avoid any obligation to its students under either due process or contract law.
Swartley, 734 A.2d at 921 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).
The SDM argues that ethics and honesty are deeply intertwined in the school's academic curriculum. We are sympathetic to the argument that the distinction between academic and disciplinary decision-making is less than clear in this case. The trial court's injunction not only forbade the SDM to dismiss Appellee, it ordered the SDM to graduate him on time unless the court permitted otherwise. Nonetheless, we view the underlying infraction — lying to faculty — as a matter of discipline. The order directing the SDM to graduate Appellee on time, however, plainly interfered with the SDM's academic decision-making authority. Ultimately, we conclude the trial court improperly interfered with the SDM's disciplinary authority. The underlying infraction here is Appellee's dishonesty in a closeddoor meeting with faculty. The injunction was improper regardless of its directive to graduate Appellee on time.