Wynne v. Tufts University School of Medicine

Decision Date17 September 1992
Docket NumberNo. 92-1437,92-1437
Citation976 F.2d 791
Parties77 Ed. Law Rep. 1136, 3 NDLR P 121 Steven WYNNE, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. TUFTS UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE, Defendant, Appellee. . Heard
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Robert LeRoux Hernandez, with whom Ellis & Ellis, Worcester, Mass., was on brief, for plaintiff, appellant.

Alan D. Rose, with whom Nutter, McClennen & Fish, Boston, Mass., was on brief, for defendant, appellee.

Before BREYER, Chief Judge, TORRUELLA and SELYA, Circuit Judges.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

This appeal requires us to revisit a longstanding dispute between Tufts University School of Medicine and Steven Wynne, a former student. On a previous occasion, we vacated the district court's entry of summary judgment in Tufts' favor. See Wynne v. Tufts Univ. School of Medicine, 932 F.2d 19 (1st Cir.1991) (en banc). After further proceedings, the district court again entered summary judgment for the defendant. This time around, on an augmented record, we affirm.

Background

The facts pertinent to Wynne's banishment from the groves of academe are chronicled in our earlier opinion and need not be fully rehearsed. A succinct summary suffices.

Wynne matriculated at Tufts in 1983. He failed eight of fifteen first-year courses. Although academic guidelines provided for dismissal after five course failures, the dean granted Wynne a special dispensation and allowed him to repeat the first year of medical school. Over the summer of 1984, Wynne underwent neuropsychological testing at Tufts' instance and expense. The results, described in detail in our earlier opinion, id. at 21, showed cognitive deficits and weaknesses in processing discrete units of information. However, no differential diagnosis of dyslexia or any other particularized learning disability was made at this time.

During Wynne's second tour of the first-year curriculum, Tufts arranged to supply him with tutors, counsellors, note-takers, and other aids. This time, he passed all but two courses: pharmacology and biochemistry. Tufts still did not expel Wynne. Instead, it permitted him to take make-up examinations in these two subjects. He passed pharmacology but failed biochemistry. That ended the matter. Wynne was dismissed in September, 1985.

Prior Proceedings

In his court case, Wynne alleged that he was learning-disabled and that Tufts had discriminated against him on the basis of his handicap. In short order, Wynne refined his claim to allege that his disability placed him at an unfair disadvantage in taking written multiple-choice examinations and that Tufts, for no good reason, had stubbornly refused to test his proficiency in biochemistry by some other means. Eventually, the district court granted summary judgment in Tufts' favor on the ground that Wynne, because of his inability to pass biochemistry, was not an "otherwise qualified" handicapped person within the meaning of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (1988), as explicated by the relevant caselaw.

On appeal, a panel of this court reversed. That opinion was withdrawn, however, and the full court reheard Wynne's appeal. We concluded that, in determining whether an aspiring medical student meets section 504's "otherwise qualified" prong, it is necessary to take into account the extent to which reasonable accommodations that will satisfy the legitimate interests of both the school and the student are (or are not) available and, if such accommodations exist, the extent to which the institution explored those alternatives. See Wynne, 932 F.2d at 24-26 (citing, inter alia, School Bd. of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273, 107 S.Ct. 1123, 94 L.Ed.2d 307 (1987)). Recognizing the unique considerations that come into play when the parties to a Rehabilitation Act case are a student and an academic institution, particularly a medical school training apprentice physicians, we formulated a test for determining whether the academic institution adequately explored the availability of reasonable accommodations:

If the institution submits undisputed facts demonstrating that the relevant officials within the institution considered alternative means, their feasibility, cost and effect on the academic program, and came to a rationally justifiable conclusion that the available alternatives would result either in lowering academic standards or requiring substantial program alteration, the court could rule as a matter of law that the institution had met its duty of seeking reasonable accommodation. In most cases, we believe that, as in the qualified immunity context, the issue of whether the facts alleged by a university support its claim that it has met its duty of reasonable accommodation will be a purely legal one. Only if essential facts were genuinely disputed or if there were significantly probative evidence of bad faith or pretext would further fact finding be necessary.

Id. at 26 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Because the summary judgment record did not satisfactorily address this issue, 1 we vacated the judgment and remanded for further proceedings, leaving the district court "free to consider other submissions [and] to enter summary judgment thereon if [an expanded record] meet[s] the standard we have set forth." Id. at 28.

Following remand, Tufts filed a renewed motion for summary judgment accompanied by six new affidavits. The plaintiff filed a comprehensive opposition supported, inter alia, by his own supplemental affidavit. The court below read the briefs, heard oral argument, reviewed the parties' updated submissions, and determined that Tufts had met its burden under Wynne. In the lower court's view, the expanded record clearly showed that Tufts had evaluated the available alternatives to its current testing format and had reasonably concluded that it was not practicable in this instance to depart from the standard multiple-choice format. Accordingly, the court again entered summary judgment in Tufts' favor. This appeal ensued.

Issues

The principal issue on appeal is whether, given those facts not genuinely in dispute, Tufts can be said, as a matter of law, either to have provided reasonable accommodations for plaintiff's handicapping condition 2 or to have demonstrated that it reached a rationally justifiable conclusion that accommodating plaintiff would lower academic standards or otherwise unduly affect its program. There is also a secondary issue: whether plaintiff has advanced significantly probative evidence sufficient to ground a finding that Tufts' reasons for not making further accommodations were pretextual or asserted in bad faith.

Standard of Review

Summary judgment has a special place in civil litigation. The device "has proven its usefulness as a means of avoiding full-dress trials in unwinnable cases, thereby freeing courts to utilize scarce judicial resources in more beneficial ways." Mesnick v. General Elec. Co., 950 F.2d 816, 822 (1st Cir.1991), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 2965, 119 L.Ed.2d 586 (1992). In operation, summary judgment's role is to pierce the boilerplate of the pleadings and assay the parties' proof in order to determine whether trial is actually required. See id.; see also Garside v. Osco Drug, Inc., 895 F.2d 46, 50 (1st Cir.1990). Since appellate review of an order granting summary judgment is plenary, the court of appeals, like the trial court, "must view the entire record in the light most hospitable to the party opposing summary judgment, indulging all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Griggs-Ryan v. Smith, 904 F.2d 112, 115 (1st Cir.1990).

We uphold a grant of summary judgment if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). When, as here, the movant-defendant has suggested that competent evidence to prove the case is lacking, the burden devolves upon the nonmovant-plaintiff to "document some factual disagreement sufficient to deflect brevis disposition." Mesnick, 950 F.2d at 822.

This burden is discharged only if the cited disagreement relates to a genuine issue of material fact. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). "In this context, 'genuine' means that the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in favor of the nonmoving party [and] 'material' means that the fact is one that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." United States v. One Parcel of Real Property, Etc. (Great Harbor Neck, New Shoreham, R.I.), 960 F.2d 200, 204 (1st Cir.1992) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. at 2510; internal quotation marks omitted). This requirement has sharp teeth: the plaintiff "must present definite, competent evidence to rebut the motion." Mesnick, 950 F.2d at 822. Such evidence "cannot be conjectural or problematic; it must have substance in the sense that it limns differing versions of the truth which a factfinder must resolve at an ensuing trial." Mack v. Great Atl. & Pac. Tea Co., 871 F.2d 179, 181 (1st Cir.1989). As the Court has cautioned, evidence that "is merely colorable or is not significantly probative" cannot deter summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50, 106 S.Ct. at 2511 (citations omitted).

Discussion

We have carefully reviewed the amplitudinous record and are fully satisfied that the district court did not err in granting summary judgment. Fairly read, the record presents no genuine issue as to any material fact. Because this case has consumed so many hours of judicial time, we resist the temptation to wax longiloquent. Instead, we add only a few decurtate observations embellishing...

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