Joiner v. Meharry Med. Coll.

Decision Date28 November 2020
Docket NumberNO. 3:18-cv-00863,3:18-cv-00863
PartiesMURRAY E. JOINER, III, Plaintiff, v. MEHARRY MEDICAL COLLEGE, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Tennessee

JUDGE RICHARDSON

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Pending before the Court are two motions for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff moved for summary judgment1 (Doc. No. 32, "Plaintiff's Motion"), and Defendant moved for summary judgment (Doc. No. 34, "Defendant's Motion"). Plaintiff filed a Response to Defendant's Motion, (Doc. No. 39), and Defendant filed a Response to Plaintiff's Motion (Doc. No. 42). Plaintiff filed a Reply in support of Plaintiff's Motion (Doc. No. 43), and Defendant filed a Reply in support of Defendant's Motion (Doc. No. 46). The matter is ripe for review. For the reasons discussed herein, the Court will deny Plaintiff's Motion, and grant Defendant's Motion.

BACKGROUND2

Located in Nashville, Meharry Medical College ("MMC" or "Defendant") is a historically black academic health science center which educates physicians, dentists, researchers, and healthpolicy experts. (Doc. No. 41 at ¶ 1). Meharry includes a medical school, dental school, graduate school, and a center for health policy. (Id.). Meharry confers several advanced degrees. (Id. at ¶ 2). This dispute arises out of Plaintiff's dismissal from MMC, specifically the Meharry School of Medicine ("SOM"), and the handling of a sexual harassment allegation Plaintiff made while attending MMC.

A. Plaintiff's Academic Performance

Plaintiff had previously received a Bachelor's of Science degree in biochemistry from Oakwood University. (Id. at ¶ 4). Plaintiff applied to the SOM to be in the class of 2019, but his application was deferred, and he instead enrolled in Meharry's Master of Health Science ("MHS") program in fall of 2015. (Doc. No. 39-1 at ¶¶ 1, 2). The MHS program is a one-year program offered for approximately 35 students each year who have been deferred admission from the SOM. (Id. at ¶ 3). Plaintiff completed the coursework for the MHS program, but he did not receive a sufficient grade point average to receive a degree from the program. (Id. at ¶ 4). Though appearing to recognize that his grade point average as listed by Meharry was too low to receive a degree, Plaintiff disputes that he did not earn a sufficient grade point average, as he claims that he received an incorrect grade. (Id.). Despite a clear appeal policy whereby he could have appealed, Plaintiff never appealed his allegedly incorrect grade. (Id. at ¶ 5, 6).

In summer 2016, Plaintiff was informed that he was on the waiting list for the SOM, and then shortly thereafter he was informed that he had been accepted into the SOM. (Id. at ¶¶ 12, 13). Plaintiff paid tuition and other fees for the 2017-2018 academic year. (Id. at ¶ 16). The SOM prescribes a four-year curriculum divided into two phases: Phase I includes a six-week Mini Academic Program for Success ("MAPS") and two years of coursework including basic sciencecourses, and Phase II includes two more years of coursework and clinical work. (Doc. No. 39-1 at ¶ 9).

In August 2016, Plaintiff was informed that he failed two modules of the MAPS program, and he was told to formulate a remediation and schedule an appointment with Meharry's Center for Educational Development and Support ("CEDS"). (Id. at ¶ 11). A professor testified at a deposition that it is uncommon to fail any module of MAPS. (Id. at ¶ 12).

On September 8, 2016, Plaintiff was informed that he failed the first block of exams in three of his courses, and he was again advised to create a remediation plan and schedule an appointment with CEDS. (Id. at ¶ 13). Less than a week later, Plaintiff was asked to meet with Dr. Stephanie McClure, Meharry's Senior Associate Dean, Office of Student Academic Affairs for the SOM ("Dr. McClure"), in regard to his academic difficulties and an apparent lack of professionalism. (Id. at ¶ 14). Dr. McClure testified that Plaintiff was perceived to lack professionalism because he had been disrespectful to a faculty member, talked back to a faculty member when asked to remove a hat, and watched unrelated videos during a class. (Id. at ¶ 15). During this meeting, Dr. McClure recommended Plaintiff "decelerate" his medical school track, in order to take a lighter course load and graduate in five years instead of four. (Id. at ¶¶ 16, 17). On October 10, 2016, Plaintiff was informed that he failed the second block of exams in two courses. (Id. at ¶ 19). On November 17, 2016, Plaintiff was informed that he failed his fourth block exams in one course. (Id. at ¶ 20). Plaintiff's grade point average for the first semester of medical school was a 2.0. (Id. at ¶ 21).

On January 20, 2017, Plaintiff was informed that he had failed the first block of exams in one of his courses. (Id. at ¶ 22). Plaintiff was called before the March 10, 2017 meeting of the Student Academic Support Services Committee ("SASSC") as a result of his grade in a course.(Id. at ¶ 23). On March 13, 2017, Plaintiff was informed that he had failed the first block of exams in one of his courses and was warned of his poor performance in another course. (Id. at ¶ 24). Plaintiff was called before another meeting of the SASSC in April as a result of a low grade in another class. (Id. at ¶ 25). Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff was informed he had failed the second block of exams for one course, and he was required to meet with Dr. Digna Forces, Associate Dean of Medical Education because he had failed to ever schedule an appointment with CEDS. (Id. at ¶ 26). Later in April, Plaintiff was informed he failed a third block of exams for one course. (Id. at ¶ 27). Plaintiff's GPA for his second semester was a 2.51. (Id. at ¶ 28).

Plaintiff was subsequently referred to the Student Evaluation and Promotion Committee ("SEPC") and had a hearing on September 11, 2017. (Id. at ¶ 30). The SEPC decided Plaintiff would have to repeat two courses during fall 2018 (the next time the courses were offered). (Id.). In September, Plaintiff was informed he failed a midterm in one of his courses. (Id. at ¶ 31). In November, Plaintiff was informed that he had failed 10 credit hours of courses and a new hearing with SEPC was scheduled for later in November. (Id. at ¶ 32). Plaintiff was informed that if a student failed 12 or more credit hours they would be recommended for dismissal due to poor academic performance, and Plaintiff was told if he failed Urinary Systems, a three credit-hour course, he would be dismissed from the SOM. (Id. at ¶¶ 33, 34). Plaintiff claims that at this point he asked to withdraw from medical school but was advised to remain, though Dr. McClure does not recall Plaintiff ever asking to withdraw. (Id. at ¶¶ 35, 36). On December 8, 2017, Plaintiff was informed that he had failed Urinary Systems and was being dismissed from the SOM. (Id. at ¶ 37). Plaintiff does not dispute that he failed four classes totaling more than 12 credit hours during the fall 2017 semester. (Id. at ¶¶ 38, 39).

Plaintiff was informed that he could appeal his dismissal within five business days to Dean Mallett, the Dean of the SOM (the "Dean"). He also was advised that his appeal should be based on "compelling reason, bias, or failure to follow due process," but that the Dean would not rehear the merits of his claim. (Doc. No. 41 at ¶¶ 40, 41). Plaintiff, who had returned home after his dismissal, flew to Nashville for an in-person appeal hearing, which was cancelled twice. (Id. at ¶ 50). Plaintiff claims that he ended up making his appeal over the phone when the Dean called him while he was out shopping with his family, (Id. at 51), but Defendant characterizes this phone call as a mere discussion. (Doc. No. 41 at ¶ 43). The student manual does not require the Dean to meet with dismissed students in person or by telephone prior to rendering a decision on the appeal. (Doc. No. 39-1 at ¶ 45). After the conversation, Plaintiff emailed the Dean to explain his poor academic performance, took responsibility for his dismissal, and did not mention any sexual harassment. (Id. at ¶ 46). The Dean upheld the decision to dismiss Plaintiff from the SOM. (Id. at ¶ 47).

B. Plaintiff's Allegations of Sexual Harassment

During his fall semester, Plaintiff was repeatedly harassed by another student which was observed by other members of Plaintiff's small group ("Student M").3 (Doc. No. 41 at ¶¶ 18, 19). Plaintiff's small group met four times a week for approximately four hours a day, studying on campus. (Id. at ¶ 20). In his testimony, Plaintiff states that Student M would touch him inappropriately, make sexual comments, and make him uncomfortable. (Id. at ¶¶ 21, 22, 23).Plaintiff specifically states that Student M spanked him at an off-campus birthday party and grabbed his thigh in an Uber. (Id. at ¶¶ 24, 25).4

Plaintiff reported inappropriate conduct on January 31, 2017, to Shana Hill, an Assistant Dean in Meharry's Office of Student and Academic Affairs. (Doc. No. 39-1 at ¶ 71). Plaintiff does not recall previously complaining about the inappropriate conduct. (Id. at ¶ 81). Plaintiff met with Dr. McClure and Ronette Adams, Meharry's Title IX Compliance Officer ("Title IX Officer"), and he was moved into a different small group the same day. (Doc. No. 41 at ¶ 26; Doc. No. 39-1 at ¶ 75). At the meeting, Plaintiff reported Student M grabbing his thigh, spanking him, and other improper conduct. (Doc. No. 41 at. ¶ 27).

Plaintiff told Dr. McClure identifying information about Student M, such as that he was homosexual, a "social chair," and on the Executive Board.5 (Id. at ¶ 28). Despite knowing the first name of Student M, Plaintiff never revealed Student M's name to Defendant. (Doc. No. 39-1 at ¶ 64-67, 90). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant knew the identity of Student M from this information, but Defendant denies that it had identified Student M at this time. (Doc. No. 41 at ¶ 28). There are facts in the record that indicate that the identity of Student M...

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