Rossi v. Univ. of Utah

Decision Date12 August 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20180549,20180549
Citation496 P.3d 105
Parties Christina ROSSI, Appellant, v. UNIVERSITY OF UTAH, Appellee.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Ryan B. Hancey, Adam L. Grundvig, Salt Lake City, for appellant

Peggy E. Stone, Asst. Solic. Gen., Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellee

Associate Chief Justice Lee authored the opinion of the Court in which Chief Justice Durrant, Justice Himonas, Justice Petersen, and Judge Wilcox joined.

Associate Chief Justice Lee, opinion of the Court:

INTRODUCTION

¶1 Christina Rossi was dismissed from the University of Utah's Neuroscience Ph.D. Program (the University). She asserted claims against the University for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and negligence. The district court dismissed all three claims on summary judgment. We affirm.

¶2 We acknowledge that a student may establish that a university has made promises to students that are legally enforceable under the law of contracts. But we hold that Rossi failed to establish a basis for concluding that there was a breach of any such promise by the University of Utah—a promise made in exchange for a promise or performance by Rossi.

¶3 We affirm the dismissal of Rossi's breach of contract claims on this basis. Because her contract claims fail, we also hold that she has no viable claim for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. And we reject her negligence claim on the basis of our refusal to establish a fiduciary duty of educators to students.

BACKGROUND

¶4 In 2008 the University of Utah accepted Christina Rossi as a Ph.D. student in its Interdepartmental Program in Neuroscience. Upon accepting her, the university sent Rossi an acceptance packet that included a program Policy Statement and an Academic Policies and Procedures Guide—documents that described academic standards for students in the program and set forth procedures for addressing a student's failure to meet such standards.

¶5 In Rossi's first year in the program she enrolled in required courses and began to conduct research under the supervision of an assigned mentor. Initially, Rossi's research was performed under the supervision of Dr. Raymond Kesner. Rossi and Kesner signed a document—an Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) "Compact Between Biomedical Graduate Students and Their Advisors"—memorializing certain expectations for their mentoring relationship. She also began to form her dissertation supervisory committee (the Committee), which included Dr. Kesner and Drs. F. Edward Dudek, Kristin Keefe, John White, and Bradley Greger.

¶6 Dr. Dudek took over the role as Rossi's mentor during her second year. During that year, Dr. Dudek encouraged Rossi to collect data for her project using a device called the "Epoch." Rossi was aware that Dr. Dudek had an ownership interest in the company that manufactured the device, but claims she did not know the extent of his interest.

¶7 In September 2012, Rossi met with the Committee to discuss her progress. They selected June 2013 as the anticipated date for Rossi to defend her dissertation.

¶8 According to Rossi, her relationship with the Committee began to sour around November 2012. At that point, Rossi told Dr. Dudek that her research had not produced the results she had expected. At that time, Dr. Dudek sent a letter identifying the possibility of conflicts of interest based on his ownership in the manufacturer of the Epoch. He stated that the University did not want Rossi to feel "pressured" to make the Epoch and the data provided appear "better than they actually [were]." Dr. Dudek identified several plans to manage the conflicts, but Rossi asserts that no University representatives followed the plans in the letter.

¶9 Rossi alleges that Dr. Dudek did not make himself available to discuss her dissertation after this point. In March 2013, however, Dr. Dudek approved an April 25 date for Rossi to defend her dissertation. Dr. Dudek and Rossi met to discuss her dissertation on April 15. At that time, Rossi believed that Dr. Dudek was happy with her work. The next day, however, Dr. Dudek encouraged Rossi to postpone both her defense date and her upcoming postdoctoral fellowship at MIT. Three days before her dissertation defense, Dr. Dudek met with Rossi and informed her that he "did not trust her" because she had been "dishonest." He also told Rossi she could no longer be in his lab unless escorted.

¶10 After Rossi's defense, Dr. Dudek told the Committee, people in his lab, University faculty, and the University's research integrity officer that he believed that Rossi had been dishonest, misleading, untrustworthy, and lazy. He also asserted that she had committed "research misconduct" and other misconduct, including falsifying her data.

¶11 After Rossi's defense, the Committee unanimously determined that she did not fully analyze her data and that her written dissertation lacked the level of completeness and detail required for a Ph.D. The Committee gave Rossi a second chance to defend her dissertation, however. At least one of the grounds for doing so was Rossi's assertion that Dr. Dudek had not been available or given her adequate support in the months leading up to her defense.

¶12 From April 2013 until January 2014, Rossi communicated with the Committee, and the Committee members regularly consulted each other as they reviewed Rossi's work. They provided feedback regarding proposed drafts and sections of her dissertation and helped facilitate her research and data analysis.

¶13 The Committee met in July 2013, but then did not hear from Rossi again during the remainder of the summer. Dr. Keefe requested an update of her progress in September. Rossi then resumed submitting drafts of portions of her dissertation. But the Committee unanimously found that her drafts were inadequate and that she failed to incorporate the Committee members’ suggestions in subsequent drafts.

¶14 At a November 2013 Committee meeting, the Committee determined that Rossi should be dismissed from the program and informed her of that decision. But the Committee reconsidered this decision the next day. It notified Rossi in writing that she was not dismissed and would be allowed to continue her project. The Committee sent her a Remediation Plan Letter, setting forth terms and conditions for Rossi to defend her dissertation in August 2014. The Remediation Plan Letter said that the Committee would reach out to Rossi by January 6, 2014 if she had "not made sufficient progress toward the completion of [her] dissertation," and would ask her "whether [she] wish[ed] to continue in the Interdepartmental Program in Neuroscience." If she did, the program would then "provide [her] with the next defined steps necessary to move, in their view, toward a successful dissertation document and oral defense in July/August."

¶15 Rossi responded by filing a grievance. Her grievance challenged the proposed remediation plan and stated that she wanted to graduate and defend her dissertation sooner. She also demanded office space, specific and written feedback, access to committee members, and for all committee meetings to be recorded. Neither the Committee nor the University accepted any of those requests. Yet Rossi alleges that she and the University acted bound by the Remediation Plan Letter despite her grievance.

¶16 Rossi did not meet the deadlines set out in the Remediation Plan Letter. She repeatedly requested extensions of time. In the Committee's view, Rossi's work did not improve. On January 14, 2014, the Committee sent Rossi a letter informing her she was dismissed from the program. The Committee's decision was affirmed at every level of administrative review at the University, including appeals and review by the Program Chair, the Dean of the School of Medicine, the Graduate School Vice President, the Academic Appeal committee, and the University's Vice President.

¶17 Rossi asserted claims against the University for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and negligence. Her breach of contract claims alleged that the University had breached the terms of a contract established in various documents memorializing her status or relationship in the University or the program—a policy set forth in a University Student Code, the terms of a Faculty Code and Conflict of Interest Policy and Research Misconduct Policy, and the standards set forth in the Program Policy Statement, AAMC Compact, and the Remediation Plan Letter. Rossi also asserted that the University had breached a covenant of good faith and fair dealing inherent in these alleged contracts. And she claimed that the University had an independent duty in tort that it breached in dismissing her from the program.

¶18 The district court dismissed all of these claims on summary judgment. In dismissing the contract claims, the court noted that the Utah appellate courts had not yet decided whether a contractual relationship exists between a university and its students "based solely on a university's policies and procedures, rules, or student manual." In the absence of Utah-specific authority, the district court turned to precedent in other jurisdictions. First, the court endorsed a statement from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals suggesting that contract law may not be "rigidly applied in all its aspects" in a university setting. See Slaughter v. Brigham Young Univ. , 514 F.2d 622, 626 (10th Cir. 1975). Second, the court found "persuasive a line of cases from the Southern District of New York"cases stating that "general policy statements and broad and unspecified procedures and guidelines" will not sustain a claim for breach of contract against a university, see Ward v. New York Univ. , No. 99 CIV. 8733 (RCC), 2000 WL 1448641, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 28, 2000), and holding that a plaintiff asserting a claim for breach of contract based on university policies and procedures "must identify specifically designated and...

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