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Tran v. State System of Higher Education

December 2, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Cohn Jubelirer

Submitted: October 14, 2009



Katie Tran (Petitioner) petitions for review of the order of the Board of Claims (Board), which granted the preliminary objection filed by the State System of Higher Education on behalf of West Chester University (together, University), after finding that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to Section 1724 of the Commonwealth Procurement Code (Procurement Code), 62 Pa. C.S. § 1724. We affirm on other grounds.

Petitioner filed a civil complaint (Complaint) in the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County (trial court), alleging that, while she was enrolled in the University's nursing program (Program), the University improperly dismissed her from a clinical practicum due to allegations of unsafe clinical practice.*fn1 Petitioner contends that the University's undergraduate student handbook (Handbook), which sets forth certain procedural guidelines for disciplining students, constitutes a bilateral contract to which the University was bound. According to Petitioner, the University did not follow the procedures set forth in the Handbook when it dismissed her from the clinical practicum. Therefore, Petitioner argues that because the University breached the contract, she is entitled to compensatory damages.*fn2

The University filed preliminary objections, asserting, inter alia, that the trial court lacked jurisdiction as the matter involved a breach of contract action against a Commonwealth entity. Upon consent of the parties, the trial court sustained the University's preliminary objection as to jurisdiction and transferred the matter to the Commonwealth Court. (Trial Ct. Order, April 15, 2008.) Following the transfer of the matter, this Court, sua sponte, issued a single-judge memorandum and order in Tran v. West Chester University, No. 252 M.D. 2008, slip op. (Pa. Cmwlth. May 5, 2008) (Tran I), concluding that this Court did not have jurisdiction over the matter but, rather, that jurisdiction lies with the Board.*fn3 Therefore, this Court transferred the matter to the Board.

Thereafter, Petitioner filed a Statement of Claim with the Board, setting forth the same breach of contract allegations against the University as in the Complaint. The University filed preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer, asserting that:

(1) it was entitled to sovereign immunity as a Commonwealth entity; (2) the Handbook did not constitute a legally binding contract; and (3) the Board did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the action. The Board granted the preliminary objection as to subject matter jurisdiction, but noted that it was granting the preliminary objection for a reason different than that raised by the University.*fn4

Citing Reardon v. Allegheny College, 926 A.2d 477 (Pa. Super. 2007); Morein v. Drexel University, 44 Pa. D. & C. 4th 13 (2000); Smith v. Gettysburg College, 22 Pa. D. & C. 3d 607 (1982); and Eter v. College Misericordia, 28 Pa. D. & C. 3d 402 (1982), the Board held that the Handbook constituted a binding contract between Petitioner and the University. (Board Op. at 3.) However, the Board determined that it no longer had jurisdiction over all contracts with the Commonwealth. (Board Op. at 3.) The Board stated that it only had jurisdiction over those contracts that were included within its enabling provisions, explaining:

[W]e note that Act 142 of 2002 repealed the Board of Claims longstanding enabling legislation dating back to 1937 (Board of Claims Act, Act 193 of 1937) and restated the Board's enabling and jurisdictional provisions as a subchapter of the Commonwealth Procurement Code, 62 Pa.C.S. §1721-1726. 62 Pa.C.S. §102 at (a) and (b) set forth the scope of the Procurement Code (which now includes and circumscribes the Board's enabling legislations) and states that the Procurement Code is intended to apply to "every expenditure of funds, other than the investment of funds, by Commonwealth agencies under any contract . . ." and also "to the disposal of supplies of Commonwealth agencies." Moreover, we note that the definitions found in §103 of the Procurement Code are general definitions which apply "unless the context clearly indicates otherwise" to all provisions of said Code, including the Board's current enabling provisions. We also see that the definitions of "contract", "services" and "supplies" combine to limit the Board's current jurisdiction to the Commonwealth's procurement of supplies, services and real estate and its disposal of real estate and supplies. It does not, by its plain language, encompass contracts for the provision of educational services by the Commonwealth, and we are not aware of any context, be it textual, historical or otherwise, which would indicate differently.

(Board Op. at 3-4 (emphasis in original).) Thus, the Board held that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction under Section 1724 of the Procurement Code, granted the University's preliminary objection, and dismissed Petitioner's Statement of Claim with prejudice. Petitioner now petitions this Court for review.*fn5

In her appeal, Petitioner agrees with the Board that it lacked jurisdiction in this matter. However, Petitioner argues that this matter falls within this Court's original jurisdiction and that this Court should not have initially transferred the action to the Board. Petitioner maintains that this Court should now accept the matter in its original jurisdiction.*fn6

In response, the University also agrees that the Board did not err in finding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction in this matter and in granting its preliminary objection. However, the University disagrees with Petitioner's contention that this matter lies in this Court's original jurisdiction, and asserts that Petitioner's contract claims, instead, amount to an untimely appeal from the University's determination dismissing Petitioner from the Program.

Essentially, there are three jurisdictional questions at issue: (1) the Board's jurisdiction; (2) this Court's original jurisdiction; and (3) this Court's appellate jurisdiction. Because of the complexity ...

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