Nickel v. Stephens Coll., WD 77898

CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)
Writing for the CourtGary D. Witt, Judge
Citation480 S.W.3d 390
Parties Kacie Nickel, Appellant, v. Stephens College, et al., Respondents.
Docket NumberWD 77898
Decision Date15 September 2015

480 S.W.3d 390

Kacie Nickel, Appellant,
Stephens College, et al., Respondents.

WD 77898

Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District.

OPINION FILED: September 15, 2015
Motion for Rehearing and/or Transfer to Supreme Court Denied October 27, 2015

Danieal H. Miller, Columbia, MO, for appellant.

Ian Paul Cooper and Katherine L. Nash, St. Louis, MO, for respondents.

Before Division Four: Alok Ahuja, Chief Judge, Presiding, Gary D. Witt, Judge, and John M. Torrence, Special Judge

Gary D. Witt, Judge

This appeal arises out of an action brought by Appellant Kacie Nickel ("Nickel"), in which Nickel sought damages against Respondent Stephens College ("Stephens") and three of its employees, Deborah Duren ("Duren"), Erin Zevely ("Zevely"), and Tony Coleman ("Coleman") (collectively "Respondents"), after Stephens issued Nickel a withdrawal following an attempted suicide. Nickel asserted claims against Respondents for Breach of Contract (Count I); Tortious Interference with a Contract (solely against the individual respondents—Count II); Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (Count III); Prima Facie Tort (Count IV); Negligent Supervision and Training

480 S.W.3d 393

(solely against Stephens—Count V); Negligence Per Se (solely against Stephens—Count VI); and Negligence (Count VII). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Respondents on all counts and Nickel now appeals. For the following reasons, we affirm.

Factual and Procedural History1

On August 11, 2011, 21–year–old Nickel was admitted as a transfer student to Stephens. Stephens is a pro forma Missouri corporation in good standing and a private institution of higher education.2 Individual Respondents were employees of Stephens at the time Nickel was a student.

Nickel listed in Stephens's "Application for Transfer Admission" that she had previously attended New Haven High School, which was a residential treatment program and boarding school. She did not disclose that the school was, in part, a mental health treatment program. Nickel also completed a "Health Statement" for Stephens stating that she had never received treatment or counseling or hospitalization for an emotional problem.

Stephens allows students living on campus to have approved pets. Nickel participated in this program and lived on campus in Prunty Residence Hall with her emotional support dog, "Hippo." On October 4, 2011, Nickel went to the Stephens's Counseling Center and indicated on an in-take form that she was having issues with stress, fears, and health problems. The following day, Nickel was seen by a doctor at the Counseling Center and told the doctor about her psychiatric history, including her inpatient treatment at New Haven, prior hospitalizations, mental health and medical history, and medications. Nickel successfully completed the Fall semester.

Classes for the Spring 2012 Semester began on January 9, 2012. Two days later, on January 11, 2012, Nickel asked one of her friends to watch her dog, then drove to McBaine, Missouri, where she attempted to take her own life by ingesting excessive doses of over-the-counter medications.

Nickel's former boyfriend contacted the Columbia Police Department ("CPD") and reported that he and Nickel had broken off their three-month long relationship earlier in the day and he had received texts from Nickel threatening self-harm. A CPD officer was dispatched to Prunty Hall at Stephens based on this report. Campus Security contacted the Director of Security, Coleman, and notified him of the CPD report that Nickel was possibly a threat to harm herself. Coleman also called the Student Services Coordinator, Zevely, to inform her that they had a report that Nickel may attempt to harm herself.

Zevely located Nickel's emergency contact information, which identified Laurie Nickel ("Laurie") as a person to communicate with in the event of an emergency.3 Zevely contacted Laurie to notify her of the emergency. A CPD officer also contacted Laurie to inform her of the emergency.

480 S.W.3d 394

Later that evening, Laurie, Zevely, and Coleman all learned that Nickel had been located, was alive, and was in the Intensive Care Unit at University Hospital following a suicide attempt. On January 12, 2012, Laurie traveled from her home in Arizona to Columbia, Missouri to be with Nickel.

In the days following, Zevely, Duren, the Vice President for Student Services, along with Coleman and other members of the Stephens's Student Services Department, discussed Nickel's emergency medical situation. Zevely and Duren discussed the possibility of a medical withdrawal for Nickel and agreed to discuss the matter further with Nickel's mother, Laurie.

Laurie communicated with Nickel via text prior to arriving in Columbia. Nickel told Laurie that she was "sorry" and "want[ed] to stay in school." Laurie replied that she "want[ed] [her] to stay in school."

On or about January 13, 2012, Laurie called Zevely and asked whether Nickel could continue at Stephens. During this telephone conversation, the issue of Nickel's age or ability to speak on her own behalf was not discussed, and at no time during the conversation did Laurie request that anyone from Stephens speak directly with Nickel about her status. Zevely indicated during that conversation that Nickel could not remain at Stephens. Laurie believed that Zevely's answer did not leave any other options. Laurie never inquired whether Nickel could take a leave and later return to Stephens. Nickel's parents had paid all tuition for the 2011–2012 academic school year before classes started. Laurie was told that Nickel's tuition would be refunded for the Spring 2012 semester. Also during her call with Zevely, Laurie asked whether she and her sister, Carol Spratt, could have until the weekend to gather Nickel's belongings, including Hippo. Zevely told Laurie that she would contact Campus Security so that Laurie could be admitted to Nickel's residence hall room for this purpose. Zevely did not think it was appropriate to attempt to contact Nickel directly, nor did she believe she would be able to speak to her based on previous experiences she had with individuals receiving inpatient treatment in a hospital psychiatric unit.

Following this conversation with Laurie, Zevely informed Duren and other Stephens administrators that Nickel was taking a medical withdrawal and prepared a form indicating the withdrawal.4 Stephens processed Nickel's leave as a medical withdrawal. Stephens's withdrawal policy allows for withdrawal by students, or "at the request of [Stephens]."

At the time when the decision was made to have Nickel take a medical withdrawal, no one from Stephens had reviewed any of Nickel's medical records or consulted with any of her health care providers, counselors, or Stephens's Staff Psychologist. The only information Stephens had was that "there had been an overdose and that [Nickel] had been dealt with medically and then was getting some psychiatric help."5 At the time, Stephens did not have a specific

480 S.W.3d 395

"medical withdrawal" policy and there was no appeal process for that decision.

On or about January 15, 2012, Laurie and Spratt came to Stephens's campus and were given access to Nickel's dorm room to collect Nickel's belongings, including Hippo. At this time, Nickel was still an inpatient at University Hospital, where she was first stabilized and then moved to the psychiatric unit.

Nickel was released from the Psychiatric Unit at University Hospital on or about January 18, 2012. Soon after, Coleman received a text message from Nickel inquiring about her status at Stephens. Following Nickel's text message, Duren, Zevely, and Coleman spoke with Nickel on the telephone. During this conversation, Nickel asked about her status with Stephens, and was told she had been withdrawn and was no longer a student. Nickel was also told that she could reapply for admission.

Nickel was informed by Stephens officials that she was not allowed upon the property of Stephens without a security escort or she would be subject to arrest and criminal prosecution for trespass. Nickel later contacted Campus Security and was allowed on campus to collect her books and request transcripts.

The Student Conduct Code ("SCC") is an annual publication of Stephens that applies to all undergraduate students and provides rules, regulations, policies, and procedures regarding student misconduct. The SCC states that it "is not a contract" and that "Stephens reserves the right to amend any provision at any time."

If a student is determined to have violated the SCC, pursuant to the disciplinary procedures, Stephens may impose various sanctions, up to and including expulsion. Under the SCC, an expulsion will be recorded on the student's transcript. Nickel was never told that she violated the SCC, her transcript does not note that she was expelled or subjected to any disciplinary action.

Nickel filed suit in the circuit court of Boone County raising seven counts: Breach of Contract (Count I); Tortious Interference with a Contract (solely against the individual respondents—Count II); Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (Count III); Prima Facie Tort (Count IV); Negligent Supervision and...

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