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Maria Mosby-Nickens v. Howard University

May 23, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Amy Berman Jackson United States District Judge


Plaintiff Maria Mosby-Nickens ("Plaintiff") brings this action against defendant Howard University ("Howard"). Plaintiff was a graduate student in Howard's Counseling Psychology doctoral program and was dismissed from the program in 2009 after failing to obtain the degree during her twelve years of study. Plaintiff alleges that: (1) Howard breached a contract with her by failing to comply with certain provisions of its rules and regulations handbook, and (2) Howard engaged in constructive fraud because its employee, plaintiff's initial academic advisor, made assurances to plaintiff on which she relied to her detriment. Howard filed an answer to the amended complaint on April 19, 2011, and now moves this Court for summary judgment on all counts. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mot.") [Dkt. # 13]. Because the Court finds that plaintiff has failed to proffer evidence to support essential elements of both her breach of contract and constructive fraud claims, it will grant defendant's motion for summary judgment.

I. Background

Plaintiff, a resident of Maryland, spent more than a decade as a graduate student at Howard University in the District of Columbia. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1--2. She matriculated in fall 1997, seeking to eventually advance to candidacy for a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology. Id. ¶¶ 3, 9--10.

According to the Howard Graduate School of Political Science's Rules and Regulations for the Pursuit of Academic Degrees ("Graduate School Rules and Regulations"), an applicant must pass both a preliminary examination and a comprehensive examination, complete one approved externship and one internship, and submit an approved dissertation proposal in order to advance to candidacy for a doctorate degree. Graduate School Rules and Regulations, Ex. 4 to Def.'s Mot. at 16--21; see Mosby-Nickens Dep., Ex. 1 to Def.'s Mot. at 33:4--15, 37:21--38:4. In addition, an applicant must complete a certain number of credits in prerequisite graduate level courses. Graduate School Rules and Regulations at 19--20. However, only courses pursued within the seven years prior to the term in which the student presents herself for the final oral examination are credited toward fulfillment of the degree requirements. Id. at 17. Courses completed more than seven, but less than ten, years earlier may be restored and counted toward the degree requirements, but only if the student completes certain procedures to make those courses viable again. Id. "Under no circumstances, however, may a student receive credit toward the degree for a course which the student pursued more than ten . . . years prior to the time the student presents . . . herself for the [] final examination." Id.

Plaintiff began taking prerequisite courses in fall 1997, and continued when she became a full-time student in fall 1999. Pl.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ("Pl.'s SMF") [Dkt. # 23] ¶¶ 1--2; accord Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ("Def.'s SMF") [Dkt. # 13] ¶¶ 1--2. Upon plaintiff's admission to the graduate school, Dr. Aaron Stills was assigned as her advisor. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 3; accord Def.'s SMF ¶ 3. Howard contends that Dr. Stills remained plaintiff's academic advisor throughout her enrollment in the program, Def.'s SMF ¶ 4; Stills's Aff, Ex. 3 to Def.'s Mot. ¶ 4. Plaintiff maintains that Dr. Ibrahim replaced Dr. Stills as her academic and dissertation advisor between 2000 and 2004, and that after 2004 she was left without an advisor. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 4. Nonetheless, plaintiff states that she continued to meet with Dr. Stills at various times each semester. Mosby-Nickens Dep. at 118:15--16.

Plaintiff took her preliminary examination in fall 2000, Mosby-Nickens Dep. at 35:7-- 11, completed her comprehensive examination in fall 2001, id. at 37:7--9, and completed her externship at Howard University's counseling center in spring 2002, id. at 42:18--43:4. On August 1, 2003, nearly six years after matriculating at Howard, plaintiff began a year-long internship at Emory University. Id. at 41:18--42:11. When plaintiff returned from the internship in fall 2004, the prerequisite course credits she had earned seven years earlier in the fall 1997 semester were no longer viable. See Graduate School Rules and Regulations at 17; Pl.'s SMF ¶ 17. Plaintiff acknowledges that she was "fully aware" of the course viability policy. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 10--11. Nonetheless, plaintiff waited until the spring 2006 semester before beginning to email her former professors, requesting that they sign a petition form that would enable her to restore her unviable course credits. Mosby-Nickens Dep. at 55:17--57:4. In one case, even after a professor agreed by email to provide a signature, plaintiff failed to physically take the master form to him, and so she never actually secured the signature. Id. at 104:1--106:21. By that time, plaintiff's credits for classes taken in the spring 1998, fall 1998, and spring 1999 semesters had also expired. See Ex. 4 to Def.'s Mot. at 17. In addition, plaintiff waited until December 2006, more than two years after completing her externship, to submit her dissertation proposal. Mosby-Nickens Dep. at 59:18--20; Pl.'s SMF ¶ 19.

Then, in fall 2009, twelve years after first matriculating at Howard, and without completing the restoration process for the expired credits, plaintiff elected to take one semester of leave from school. Am. Compl. ¶ 15; Pl.'s SMF ¶ 18; Mosby-Nickens Dep. at 107:20--108:6, 108:18--109:18; see Mosby-Nickens Dep. at 125:14--126:12. At that time, the course credits she had earned between fall 1997 and spring 1999 were ten years old and thus permanently unviable. Mosby-Nickens Dep. at 125:18--126:8. In addition, the courses from the fall 1999 to spring 2002 semesters were more than seven years old and would have required restoration in order to count toward her degree. Id. at 126:9--12. As soon as plaintiff failed to register for courses, she was dismissed from the Ph.D. program. Pl.'s Mem. in Opp. to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Opp.") at 8.

Plaintiff contends that Dr. Stills led her to believe that all of her courses could be made viable despite their age, as long as good faith efforts were being made to restore them. MosbyNickens Dep. at 118:10--119:16; Pl.'s SMF ¶ 21. Specifically, plaintiff alleges in an affidavit that Dr. Stills told her that he would intervene on her behalf and "obtain the faculty signatures" so that she could restore her expired credits. Mosby-Nickens Aff., Ex. 1 to Pl.'s Opp. ¶ 12. Dr. Stills denies ever making such a representation. Stills's Aff. ¶ 7.

Plaintiff commenced this action on January 28, 2011 and filed a two-count amended complaint on March 29, 2011. [Dkt. #7]. Count I alleges breach of contract and Count II alleges constructive fraud. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 18--39. Howard filed an answer on April 19, 2011, [Dkt. # 8], discovery closed on December 15, 2011, and Howard filed the motion for summary judgment that is currently before the Court on January 31, 2012.*fn1 [Dkt. # 13].

II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The party seeking summary judgment bears the "initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted). To defeat summary judgment, the non-moving party must "designate specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324 (internal quotation marks omitted). However, the mere existence of a factual dispute is insufficient to preclude summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is "genuine" only if a reasonable fact-finder could find for the non-moving party; a fact is "material" only if it is capable of affecting the outcome of the litigation. Id.; see also Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1241 (D.C. Cir. 1987).

Moreover, "the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon a motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322. In such a situation, "there can be 'no genuine issue as to any material fact,' since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Id. at 323. And "the moving party is 'entitled to a judgment as a matter of law' ...

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