Chang v. Purdue Univ.

Decision Date20 June 2013
Docket NumberNo. 02A03–1206–PL–272.,02A03–1206–PL–272.
Citation985 N.E.2d 35
PartiesJudy CHANG, Appellant–Plaintiff, v. PURDUE UNIVERSITY; The Trustees of Purdue University; Dr. France A. Cordova, President of Purdue University, (in her official capacity); Dr. Michael A. Wartell, Chancellor of IPFW, (in his official capacity); Dr. Linda Finke (in her individual capacity); Dr. Linda Meyer (in her individual capacity); Dr. Carol Sternberger, (in her individual capacity); and Dr. Kathleen O'Connell (in her individual capacity), Appellees–Defendants.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Norman L. Roelke, Fort Wayne, IN, Attorney for Appellant.

Tandra M. Stovall, Stuart & Branigin LLP, Lafayette, IN, Attorney for Appellees.

OPINION

FRIEDLANDER, Judge.

Judy Chang appeals the denial of her summary judgment motion and her motion for directed verdict, as well as the grant of a summary judgment motion submitted by Purdue University, the Trustees of Purdue University, Dr. France Cordova (in her capacity as Purdue University's president), Dr. Michael Wartell (in his capacity as chancellor of Indiana University—Purdue University at Fort Wayne (IPFW)), and, in their individual capacities, Dr. Linda Finke, Dean of the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS), Dr. Linda Meyer, IPFW's Director of Undergraduate Programs for the Department of Nursing and a professor in that department, Carol Sternberger, Chair of the Department of Nursing, and Kathleen O'Connell, a former professor in the nursing program and IPFW's Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. Chang also appeals a jury verdict against her. Chang presents the following restated issues for review:

1. With respect to Chang's breach-of-contract claims, did the trial court err in not granting Chang's pretrial summary judgment motion, or her motion for a directed verdict at the end of trial; and did the evidence support the jury's verdict?

2. With respect to Chang's claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, did the trial court err in denying Chang's summary judgment motion and granting Purdue's summary judgment motion?

3. With respect to Chang's claim arising under article 1, section 12 of the Indiana Constitution, did the trial court err in denying Chang's summary judgment motion?

4. Did the trial court err in dismissing Chang's claims of tortious interference with Chang's contract and property rights?

5. Did the trial court err in not allowing the testimonies of Chris Mertz regarding his suspension from class for unprofessional conduct and violations of the IPFW Disciplinary Code, and of Grace Decker, who witnessed the October 30, 2008 incident that led to Chang's dismissal from the Department of Nursing, College of Health and Human Services?

We affirm.

In the fall of 2008, Chang was a student enrolled in CHHS's Department of Nursing at Purdue's regional IPFW campus. This case ultimately centers upon her dismissal from the CHHS and the Department of Nursing, a dismissal that was precipitated by an incident involving Chang and primarily one other CHHS student on October 30, 2008. This incident was not Chang's first difficulty in the nursing program.

Chang's studies in IPFW's nursing program began in 2007. On January 29, 2007, Chang's lab coordinator formally documented concerns about Chang's lab skills. When lab personnel attempted to discuss their concerns with Chang, Chang “became very argumentative and stated she felt targeted.” Appellees' Appendix at 67. When someone in the program again attempted to discuss their concerns with Chang on or about February 7, 2007, this resulted in “angry behavior” on Chang's part. Id. When that person was asked about another meeting with Chang, she responded: “I am not comfortable talking to [Chang] alone. As I have thought more about this today, I am concerned that there is more to this than just a difference in cultures. I am wondering about some type of personality disorder or mental problem.” Id. Finally, on February 16, Dr. Sternberger met with Chang and they discussed a specific plan “for improvement in nursing lab check-offs and clinical.” Id. at 67–68. Dr. Sternberger sent Chang a follow-up email summarizing the substance of their meeting. Chang responded to this email as follows: “PLEASE LEAVE ME ALONE. I DON'T WANT TO BE BOTHERED LIKE THIS AGAIN.” Id. at 68.

On April 3, 2007, Chang had a confrontation with another nursing student. A supervisor saw Chang leaning over a table within six inches of another student and “talking very hateful” to that student. Id. at 69. Moments later, the supervisor observed the other student crying and saying to Chang, “I don't want to discuss this with you any more.” Id. The supervisor observed that Chang leaned back over to the student and “was talking hateful again.” Id. On April 6, Dr. Sternberger advised Chang that a hearing was scheduled concerning the April 3 incident. On April 10, program personnel received an email regarding an incident involving Chang in the office of Services for Students with Disabilities. According to the email, Chang was “argumentative with Mary and Judy in their office, throughout which Chang ‘became increasingly agitated and disrespectful.’ Id. at 70. On April 18, 2007, Dr. Sternberger filed a report with IPFW campus police reporting that students overheard Chang making statements to the effect, “I have a gun” or “I have a gun and know how to use it.” Id.

On September 17, 2007, Dr. Sternberger advised Dr. Donna Bialik, IPFW's Dean of Students, that Chang was failing her clinical course at St. Joseph Hospital's Adult Behavioral Health Unit as a result of unprofessional conduct. Chang was advised that a meeting was scheduled for September 19 to discuss Chang's behavior in the course. Chang did not attend the meeting, but instead dropped the course. On December 21, 2007, the Nursing Department notified Chang that she had earned a grade below a “C”, and thus on January 8, 2008, Chang was placed on academic probation.

As indicated previously, however, all of the foregoing was prelude to the incident that gave rise to the present litigation. On October 30, 2008, Chang and student Julie Webb argued about “a group project and the tasks to be performed by the students for their nursing class.” Appellant's Appendix at 25. The argument left Webb feeling threatened by Chang. Webb, who was pregnant at the time, believed that Chang was going to push her down the stairs. On November 4, 2008, Dean Finke and Dr. Sternberger determined that Chang had violated the professional misconduct policy and Meyer informed Chang that she would be removed from the clinical course pending an investigation of the complaint about Chang's conduct. Chang was then escorted out of the hospital by security personnel.

In connection with the October 30 incident, Chang was charged with unprofessional conduct pursuant to the Department of Nursing Professional Misconduct policy, which states:

Students may be failed in a nursing course and/or dismissed from the IPFW/Parkview Department of Nursing for unprofessional conduct that jeopardizes the health and/or safety of patients/clients and/or others or has a potentially detrimental effect on the Department of Nursing. Due to the serious consequence of certain unprofessional behaviors, procedures for dismissal from the program may be initiated. If the student is in a clinical setting at the time that professional misconduct occurs, the person will be immediately removed from the site. The student will be suspended from all clinical settings pending the outcome of the disciplinary process.

Students are held to the standards of the Indiana Nurse Practice Act and as such, they are liable for their own actions. Behaviors of professional misconduct occurring at any time while the person is a student in the nursing program may result in disciplinary action include, but are not limited to:

• Patient Abandonment and/or neglect

• Commission of fraudulent acts/documentation

• Breach of confidentiality

• Theft of property from a clinical agency, client, others of IPFW

• Disorderly conduct

• Verbal abuse that involves an expressed or implied threat to a person's safety

• Physical abuse of any person

• Possession of a weapon

• Failed drug screen and/or possession of drugs or controlled substances

• Failed drug screen and/or possession of alcohol while at a clinical agency • Failure to report an arrest with felony charges or a felony conviction

• Any behavior that constitutes misconduct as defined by the IPFW Student Handbook and Planner and/or the IPFW Undergraduate Bulletin.

The Department of Nursing follows the processes outlined in the College of Health and Human Services (CHH) Policy on Professional Misconduct and the IPFW Student Disciplinary Procedures. The CHH Policy on Professional Misconduct may be obtained from the office of the Dean. The IPFW Student Disciplinary Procedures is found in the IPFW Student Handbook and Planner and/or the IPFW Undergraduate Bulletin.

Appellee's Appendix at 64. On November 6, Chang met with a committee of the Department of Nursing to discuss the allegations against her and to allow Chang an opportunity to respond. The committee consisted of Pam DeKonnck and Sanna Harges, members of the nursing faculty, Meyer, Director of Undergraduate Programs, and Sternberger, Chair of the Nursing Department. Chang attended with her advisor, Bialik. The committee first met with Webb, the other student involved in the incident. Webb “voiced extreme concern for her safety”, and indicated that she had filed a statement with the Fort Wayne Police Department and stated that she was considering obtaining a restraining order. Id. at 27. The student also indicated that although her home telephone number was unlisted, Chang had called her at home earlier in the semester. Later, Chang had left a “rambling message” on the student's cell phone. Id. After the student met with Bialik, Chang was directed to stop calling the student. In a letter sent to...

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