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Alden v. Georgetown University

August 12, 1999

WILLIAM W. ALDEN, APPELLANT,
v.
GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY, APPELLEE.



Before Schwelb, Ruiz, and Reid, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge

Notice: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the Atlantic and Maryland Reporters. Users are requested to notify the Clerk of the Court of any formal errors so that corrections may be made before the bound volumes go to press.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia

(Hon. Frederick D. Dorsey, Trial Judge)

Argued April 15, 1999

Decided August 12, 1999

William W. Alden appeals from a decision of the trial court granting summary judgment in favor of Georgetown University in his suit asserting breach of contract and seeking reinstatement following his dismissal from the University's Medical School. Alden *fn1 contends that the trial court erred in declining to review the University's decision to dismiss him, arguing that the issuance of a failing grade in his medicine clerkship and his resulting dismissal from the Medical School was not entitled to judicial deference as an academic decision by University officials where the failing grade was motivated by ill-will, unrelated to Alden's performance, on the part of one of the student evaluators, rather than the result of a legitimate academic judgment. Alden also challenges the trial court's decision to strike his expert witnesses on the issue of monetary damages as an abuse of discretion where the impact of the court's decision was to irreparably prejudice his ability to prove his case for damages. We affirm, concluding that there was a discernible, rational academic basis for both the failing grade and the subsequent dismissal, thereby entitling the University's decision to judicial deference, and noting, moreover, that Alden received a fair and impartial hearing on his dismissal during which time he had the opportunity to establish that his clerkship grade had been motivated solely by ill-will and to present evidence supporting his claim. In affirming the grant of summary judgment on this basis, we do not reach the issue of whether the trial court abused its discretion in striking Alden's expert witnesses.

I.

William Alden entered Georgetown Medical School as a third-year transfer student from Ross University in the summer of 1990. During his first year at Georgetown (but third year of medical studies), Alden missed a considerable amount of time from school due to his father's illness and the destruction of his parents' Kansas home in a tornado. Despite these absences, Alden received honors and high passes in his neurology, ob-gyn, pediatrics and radiology clerkships during his third year; however, he also received a "marginal" pass in his surgery clerkship.

Near the end of his third-year medicine clerkship, Alden requested permission to take some time off from the clerkship following his father's death to attend to his father's funeral arrangements. In light of his prior absences, Alden was advised against missing additional time by Dr. Jon O'Brien, Georgetown's Associate Dean of Students. Alden nevertheless flew home on June 13, and was back at Georgetown on June 16. Alden received a passing grade for the medicine clerkship, but was given another "marginal" mark, by Dr. William P. Argy, the Medicine Clerkship Director at Georgetown University.

Georgetown's Committee on Students reviewed Alden's academic progress in September 1991, as per University policy, and decided that Alden would "perform a twelve-week remedial third year medical clerkship beginning in the second quarter [fall 1991], to be followed (if successful) by the fourth year Ambulatory Care Block." *fn2 The Committee also decided to review Alden's academic progress at its January 1992 meeting, and postponed a decision as to whether Alden would be eligible for graduation in 1992.

Alden successfully passed the remedial clerkship, which ran from September 1991 until mid-December 1991. He then was scheduled for his fourth-year medicine clerkship at Fairfax Hospital which would run from December 16, 1991 through January 26, 1992. However, during this time, Alden also needed to schedule interviews for his residency following graduation. Although Georgetown policy officially allows its students to take ten days off to interview for residency opportunities, no more than five days may be taken during any single clerkship unless the student first receives permission from the school. Because of his remedial clerkship, however, Alden could not begin interviewing for residencies until mid-December. To further complicate matters, Alden chose to pursue a neurology residency, which required completion of the interview process by January 24, 1992.

Alden requested nine days off for residency interviews during his fourth-year medicine clerkship. Two of the days requested came in December; however, Alden returned a day late. In January, Alden requested an additional seven days, which Dr. Ann Pariser, the hospital's Chief Medical Resident, granted for all but the last three days (January 21, 22, and 23). Dr. Pariser told Alden that he would have to obtain written permission for the final three days from Dr. O'Brien, the Associate Dean of Students. After meeting with Alden on January 15, 1992, Dr. O'Brien prepared a memorandum to Dr. James Cooper, Medicine Clerkship Director at Fairfax Hospital and Dr. Argy, the medicine clerkship director at Georgetown, which read in pertinent part:

"Mr. Alden's reason for the extra days in one clerkship is that he is entering the Neurology match, an early match which closes entries on February 3. This is a plausible reason for scheduling the interviews (although, as Mr. Alden knows, the Committee on Students has not made a final decision as to whether he will graduate in June 1992). No extra time is allowed ...


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