Rey v. Univ. of Pittsburgh Sch. of Dental Med.

Decision Date20 April 2016
Docket Number2:15-cv-248
Citation182 F.Supp.3d 282
Parties Chloe Rey, Plaintiff, v. University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Pennsylvania

Jeffrey T. Morris, Elliott & Davis PC, Pittsburgh, PA, for Plaintiff.

Shannon H. Paliotta, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

Terrence F. McVerry, Senior United States District Judge

Pending before the Court is a MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (ECF No. 23) filed by Defendant University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine (the "University").1 The issues have been fully-briefed by the University and Plaintiff Chloe Rey in their memoranda (ECF No. 24, 30, 36), and the factual record has been thoroughly developed via their Concise Statements of Material Facts ("CSMF"), Responsive/Counter Statements of Facts ("RSOF"/ "Counter-CSMF"), appendices and exhibits (ECF No. 25, 26, 30-1, 30-2, 32, 33). Accordingly, the motion is ripe for disposition.

I. Background

The following background is taken from the Court's independent review of the motion for summary judgment, the filings in support and opposition thereto, and the record as a whole.

A. Factual Background

Plaintiff Chloe Rey Kelly ("Rey") is a twenty-seven-year-old woman who applied for, received, and accepted admission into the University's School of Dental Medicine ("SDM") first professional program for the fall semester of 2013. The SDM accepts only eighty students per year into this program. As part of her financial aid package, the SDM awarded Rey a diversity scholarship totaling $8,000 per year, provided that she maintained a 3.5 grade point average ("GPA"). Rey's parents are of Cuban descent, and she is fluent in Spanish.

After her acceptance, Rey and her then-fiancé moved from North Carolina to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in July 2013. They planned to marry in April 2014 at a wedding in North Carolina for approximately two-hundred people, followed by a week-long honeymoon in St. Croix.2

1. Rey's Tenure at the SDM

Before the fall semester began, Rey attended two orientation sessions at the SDM: a three-day session in June 2013 and another in August 2013. At some point, Rey also received and became familiar with the student handbook for SDM students.

The student handbook contains a section entitled "PROTOCOL FOR GRADING AND PROMOTION OF FIRST PROFESSIONAL DENTAL STUDENTS." It discusses the SDM Student Promotions Committee ("SPC"), which is responsible for monitoring students' academic progress in their first year of the program. During Rey's tenure as a SDM student, Dr. Kurt Summersgill served as the Chair of the SPC.

The student handbook states that the SPC may recommend dismissal to the Office of Academic Affairs when a student receives "[a] cumulative GPA less than the minimum 2.60 at the end of the academic year." Def.'s Ex. A-5, ECF No. 26-5 at 25. It further clarifies that "[i]f at the end of the spring term of the student's first year, his/her cumulative GPA is less than 2.60, he/she will be dismissed and is eligible to apply for re-admission as a first year student." Id. This GPA cut-off is set by the SDM rather than any accrediting body, licensure board, or governmental department/agency.

At the conclusion of the fall 2013 semester, Rey had received two grades of "C," which placed her on academic warning under the guidelines. Rey had also attained a GPA of 2.60.

On January 8, 2014, Dr. Summersgill sent Rey an academic warning letter in which the SPC encouraged her to obtain assistance from faculty in the areas where she needed additional help. The SPC further advised Rey to contact Dr. Karen Nedwick-Castro, her faculty coordinator, if she had any questions regarding the academic warning.

The following day, Rey met with Dr. Nedwick-Castro to discuss her grades. During the meeting, Dr. Nedwick-Catro provided Rey with general recommendations to improve her academic performance, such as contacting her professor(s), hiring a tutor, or joining a study group. They also discussed Rey's professional experience and their common research interests.

Afterward, Rey did not meet with any other faculty members to discuss her status on academic warning, hire a tutor, or seek assistance from her upper-classmate mentor. At the same time, Rey attended a study group as well as one session with a second-year student who volunteered to tutor first-year students in gross anatomy.

Toward the end of the spring semester, Rey sought and received permission from two course directors to take their finals early so that she could fly to North Carolina for her wedding on the weekend of April 25, 2015. Rey had not previously told any faculty member that her wedding was planned near final exams. Be that as it may, Rey took nine finals during the spring 2014 semester, but many of them were not weighted any more heavily than the other tests taken over the course of the semester.

While on her honeymoon, Rey learned that her final GPA for the semester was 2.260. Her cumulative GPA was 2.446. As such, Rey ranked last (80/80) in her class.3 Rey had, however, passed all of her classes with a grade of "C" or higher. In other words, Rey did not receive a "D" or "F" grade in any class that she took in her first year dental school curriculum.

2. Rey's Dismissal from the SDM

On May 5, 2014, the first day of the summer 2014 semester, Rey met with Dr. Summersgill to discuss her academic standing. At the meeting, Dr. Summersgill explained that the student promotion guidelines as set forth in the student handbook were straightforward with respect to a first year GPA below the 2.60 threshold. Dr. Summersgill also advised Rey to still attend her summer classes and try to maintain good relationships with all of her course directors.

On May 8, 2014, the SPC first met to discuss Rey's academic performance. The voting members of the SPC were Dr. Kurt Summersgill, Dr. David Veronesi, Dr. Karen Nedwick-Castro, Dr. Nina Markovic, and Dr. Joseph Petrone. Dr. Jean O'Donnell, Dr. Kenneth Etzel, and Dr. Christine Wankiiri-Hale attended the meeting ex-officio . At the meeting, Rey's wedding was allegedly a topic of conversation (although it is unclear what, if anything, was said).4 Ultimately, the SPC voted 5-0 in favor of dismissing Rey from the first degree program, with the option to withdraw and reapply to the first year class of 2019, which would begin in the fall semester of 2015, with no guarantee of re-admission. Rey could not apply for the Class of 2018 because eighty students had already been selected.

On May 9, 2014, Dr. Etzel met with Rey and informed her that the SPC had recommended dismissal. Around this time, Rey also met with Dr. Summersgill who informed her that the SPC had only made a recommendation and that Dr. O'Donnell, as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, could accept, reject, or change that recommendation. Ultimately, Dr. O'Donnell accepted the SPC's recommendation to dismiss Rey from the program.

On May 19, 2014, Rey received a formal dismissal letter from the SDM. In the letter, Rey was advised of her options, including her right to appeal the decision. The student handbook sets forth the process to initiate a Level I appeal to the SPC, and if unsuccessful, a Level II appeal to the Dean. Rey immediately decided to appeal.

Before her appeal, however, Rey and her father met with Dr. Etzel on May 20, 2014. In that meeting, Dr. Etzel explained that Rey would have to repeat the first year of the program due to her performance. Dr. Etzel further explained that repeating the year would be to Rey's advantage because she did not perform well and would need this material to become a better dentist. Rey informed Dr. Etzel that she would not reapply to the SDM, insisting that she desired to stay with her current classmates. Rey has also cited the financial burden of repeating the first year (an extra $90,0000 in student loan debt) as a basis for her decision.

Later that day, Rey and her father also met with Dr. Summersgill and Dr. O'Donnell. In this meeting, Rey explained that she had some anxiety issues and that her father had heart problems at her age, which she feared experiencing. Rey also asked to continue on with her dental degree program, but reiterated that she refused to reapply and repeat her first year.

3. Rey's Appeal(s) of the Dismissal from the SDM

In anticipation of her Level I appeal to the SPC, Rey visited her therapist at the University Counseling Center on May 20, 2104 and asked her to write a letter in support. The letter explained that Rey first went to the University Counseling Center on January 15, 2014 concerned about a history of test anxiety that had increased in severity with the start of dental school. The letter further explained that Rey began taking psychotropic medication—which can take four-six weeks to show effectiveness—at the end of March 2014. As such, the therapist "suspect[ed] that had [they] pursued medication earlier in the semester, [Rey's] symptoms would have abated soon and her overall performance would have benefited." Def.'s Ex. A-6, ECF No. 26-6 at 13.

Aside from obtaining this letter, Rey also prepared a personal written statement to the SPC in support of her appeal, outlining "[t]hree significantly stressful events" which reportedly contributed to her poor academic performance in her first year of dental school. Id. at 18. First, Rey explained that her father had his second heart attack under the age of fifty in February 2014. Second, Rey explained that she experienced her first panic attack before the microbiology final in December 2013 (the last final of her first semester), leading her to believe that she was having a cardiac event, just as her father had experienced a heart attack at an early age.5 As the letter indicates, Rey sought treatment from the student health center immediately following her microbiology exam and later reached out to the University's Student Health Services and Counseling Center, which began...

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