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Jeffrey P. Datto, Ph.D. v. Brian Harrison

November 22, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: McLaughlin, J.


The two above-captioned matters arise from the plaintiff's dismissal from an M.D./Ph.D. program at Thomas Jefferson University in May of 2005. Both suits raised similar claims. Dr. Jeffrey Datto alleged that the defendants (hereinafter "defendant" or "Thomas Jefferson University") engaged in discrimination, retaliation, and breach of contract during and following his dismissal from the program. The defendant contends that the plaintiff was dismissed on the basis of his poor academic performance.

On June 2, 2010, Dr. Datto and the defendant entered into a settlement agreement. As part of this settlement agreement, Dr. Datto signed a stipulation dismissing these two cases pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a) (Docket No. 68).*fn1 Dr. Datto has moved to vacate the judgments entered and reopen both cases. Datto Ltr. Nov. 30, 2010 (Docket No. 71). Dr. Datto claims that at the time of the settlement agreement, he was suffering from a severe and untreated depression that diminished his capacity to contract. Id. Dr. Datto claims that his limited financial and legal resources, as well as his inability to discuss the settlement with his psychiatric experts, put him in a position of weakness where he was unable to go on with the litigation. Datto Ltr. Apr. 29, 2011 (Docket No. 83). He claims that he was unable to understand the binding nature of the settlement agreement because of his impaired state, which was caused by his illness, the defendant's actions, and the Court's actions. He also claims that he was unduly influenced by Magistrate Judge Elizabeth T. Hey to sign the settlement agreement. Reply in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. to Vacate Dismissal Order ("Pl. Reply") 6 (Docket No. 86).

The Court has conducted a thorough review of the record, including: (1) Dr. Datto's original letter request to reopen these cases dated November 30, 2010, (2) Dr. Datto's letter of April 29, 2011, (3) Dr. Datto's Reply in Support of Plaintiff's Motion to Vacate Dismissal Order, (4) evidence presented at an evidentiary hearing held on September 9, 2011

(Tr. at Docket No. 92), and (5) Dr. Datto's letters of September 13, 2011, September 29, 2011, and October 10, 2011. Although he has had representation during this litigation, the plaintiff is currently a pro se litigant. Therefore, the Court investigates and considers all possible arguments and evidence on his behalf in addition to the arguments Dr. Datto has presented.

Although the Court sympathizes with Dr. Datto's frustration with his dismissal from Thomas Jefferson University and the termination of these cases, reopening these cases is not merited by the law or facts. The Court will deny Dr. Datto's motion.

I. Procedural History of These Cases In July of 2007, Dr. Datto filed suit, pro se, in the

Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. After obtaining counsel, Dr. Datto filed a third amended complaint, and, for the first time, included a federal claim alleging a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). The defendant timely removed the action to this Court, where it was docketed as Case No. 08-2154 ("Datto I").

The defendant filed a motion in this Court to dismiss Datto I and Dr. Datto moved to amend the complaint for the fourth time to add another federal claim under the Rehabilitation Act. While these motions were pending, Dr. Datto's counsel withdrew and Dr. Datto requested that the case be stayed to allow him to obtain new counsel. The Court granted the stay, but Dr. Datto was unable to obtain new counsel.

After Datto I was removed to federal court, Dr. Datto filed two new related suits in state court, Datto II, a medical malpractice action concerning treatment he received while in the M.D./Ph.D. program, and Datto III, a substantively identical action to Datto I challenging his dismissal from the M.D./Ph.D. program. Dr. Datto filed a motion asking the Court to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Datto II and III or, in the alternative, remand Datto I. Dr. Datto was willing to dismiss his federal claim in Datto I and have the action remanded to state court where it could be coordinated with Datto II and Datto


The Court granted Dr. Datto's motion to remand on March 3, 2009, allowing him to dismiss his federal claim without prejudice. Although the Court recognized that Dr. Datto could seek to amend his complaint to re-assert federal claims in state court after remand, it reasoned that this possibility was speculative because Dr. Datto had not stated that he intended to seek to re-plead his federal claims and any amendment would require leave of court. Once the case was remanded, Dr. Datto moved in state court to again amend his complaint to add federal claims under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. While the motion to amend was pending, the defendant filed a notice of removal. The case was docketed as Case No. 09-1873. Because the defendant had removed the case before the plaintiff's motion to amend had been granted, the Court remanded the case sua sponte as prematurely removed, finding that, until amended, the operative complaint contained no federal claim allowing removal.

After remand, the state court granted Dr. Datto's motion to amend in Datto I. On May 22, 2009, the plaintiff filed his fourth amended complaint containing federal claims under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fourteenth Amendment, and the defendant again filed a notice of removal to this Court, where it was docketed as Case No. 09-2549. The defendant removed Datto III to this Court on May 13, 2009, where it was docketed as Case No. 09-2064.*fn2

The defendant filed motions to dismiss in both Datto I and Datto III, on May 20, 2009 and June 12, 2009, respectively. On June 8, 2009, Dr. Datto filed a motion for a preliminary injunction requesting that the Court order Thomas Jefferson University to immediately reinstate him as a medical student (Docket No. 3). At Dr. Datto's request, which the defendant did not oppose, the Court consolidated Datto I and Datto III for all purposes and set a briefing schedule on the pending motions. On September 9, 2009, the Court granted in part and denied in part the defendant's motions to dismiss. Order Sept. 9, 2009 (Docket No. 13). Pursuant to a stipulation by the parties, the Court appointed a special master to oversee discovery in Dr. Datto's cases. Order Oct. 13, 2009 (Docket No. 22).

The Court scheduled an evidentiary hearing on Dr. Datto's motion for preliminary injunction for January 27, 2010. Order Jan 11, 2010 (Docket No. 27). Due to scheduling conflicts with both parties, the hearing was cancelled and rescheduled several times. In February of 2010, Dr. Datto obtained new counsel. At the parties' request, the Court held a pre-hearing conference on March 2, 2010 to discuss the scope of the preliminary injunction hearing (Tr. at Docket No. 41).

In his preliminary injunction motion, Dr. Datto sought a Court order that Thomas Jefferson University reinstate him so that he could graduate, a necessary prerequisite for finishing his medical-licensing examinations. The Court was informed that a number of states required licensing examinations to be taken within a specific time period. For Dr. Datto, that time period expired in August of 2010. Mar. 2, 2010 Conf. Tr. 28-32.

Several days after the pre-hearing conference, Dr. Datto's counsel requested permission to withdraw representation, apparently over a dispute regarding Dr. Datto's choice to pursue his motion for preliminary injunction. See Kolman E-mail Mar. 4, 2010 attached to Pl. Reply. The Court held a hearing on March 19, 2010 regarding counsel's request to withdraw. Mar. 19, 2010 Hr'g (Tr. at Docket No. 47). Dr. Datto did not object to his counsel's withdrawal. Id. at 5.

At the March 19, 2010 hearing, Dr. Datto told the Court that he intended to pursue his preliminary injunction motion. The Court set a schedule to accommodate Dr. Datto's request to provide additional information to the Court. Id. at 10-12. Also during the March 19 hearing, the parties agreed that settlement discussions in front of Magistrate Judge Hey would be useful.

Id. at 29. The Court referred the cases to Judge Hey for settlement discussions. Order Mar. 22, 2010 (Docket No. 46).

The parties spoke and met with Judge Hey a number of times over the subsequent months (Docket Nos. 55-58, 60-63, 66-67). On June 2, 2010, the parties entered into a settlement and stipulation of dismissal and both of Dr. Datto's cases were dismissed on that day (Docket No. 68). On November 30, 2010, the Court received a letter from Dr. Datto requesting that the Court vacate the dismissal and reopen both cases.

The Court ordered that Dr. Datto's letter be docketed, treated as a motion, and responded to by the defendant. Order Dec. 1, 2010 (Docket No. 70). On December 2, 2010, Dr. Datto wrote to the Court stating that he "might be wanting to withdraw" his request to reopen his cases. Datto Ltr. Dec. 2, 2010. On January 11, 2011, the defendant's counsel, Mr. Flaherty, informed the Court that he was advised by Dr. Datto that the plaintiff had signed a stipulation withdrawing his motion to reopen the cases. Flaherty Ltr. Jan. 11, 2011. The plaintiff, however, never sent either the defendant or the Court a signed copy of the stipulation. On January 20, 2011, Dr. Datto wrote to Mr. Flaherty that he did not "want my lawsuit to be over." Mr. Flaherty provided this e-mail to the Court. Datto E-mail Jan. 20, 2011 attached to Flaherty Ltr. Jan. 20, 2011.

Over the course of the next several months, the Court spoke with the parties several times while Dr. Datto reconsidered whether or not he wished to pursue the motion (Docket Nos. 76, 78, and Docket No. 74 in 09-2064). Ultimately, in April of 2011, Dr. Datto decided to proceed with his request to reopen the cases. The Court referred his motion to Judge Hey for a report and recommendation. Order Apr. 27, 2011 (Docket No. 80). Following a request by Dr. Datto, the Court vacated that referral. Order July 25, 2011 (Docket No. 87). The Court held an evidentiary hearing on Dr. Datto's motion on September 9, 2011.

II. Factual Findings Regarding Settlement In the fall of 2009, the parties contemplated settling these cases. Specifically, on September 22, 2009, the defendant sent Dr. Datto a letter outlining a possible settlement agreement which could possibly allow Dr. Datto to be re-admitted to Thomas Jefferson University. In a letter proposing the agreement, the defendant stated that "the University wants you to succeed in your medical career if that is possible." Flaherty Ltr. Sept. 9, 2009 attached to Pl. Reply. This proposal required Dr. Datto to agree to a number of conditions, including evaluations, prescribed treatment, and remediation courses. Thomas Jefferson University would have discretion to design and ...

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