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Angela Miller v. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital

November 15, 2012


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


Before this Court are Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment (Doc. Nos. 22, 23 and 24), Plaintiff's Response thereto (Doc. No. 27), and Defendants' Reply in further support thereof (Doc. No. 30). For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants the Defendants' Motions.


Angela Miller ("Miller" or "Plaintiff"), an African-American woman, is the alleged victim of discrimination while she was a student in the nurse anesthetist program at Thomas Jefferson University ("Jefferson University," "the University," or "Defendant"). The nurse anesthetist program requires clinical rotations, where the students learn alongside a certified registered nurse anesthetist ("CRNA") with real patients.

Students are assigned to different hospitals for their clinical rotations, and each hospital has a clinical coordinator who is also a CRNA. At the hospital, each student would be assigned to a different room with a different CRNA, working with a number of different CRNAs over time. The CRNA would submit an evaluation of the student's work that day. Additionally, the clinical coordinators would submit summative evaluations to the University periodically, tracking the student's progression over time and ultimately determining, at least in part, whether the student passed the semester.

Miller was assigned to Methodist Hospital ("Methodist") for her clinical rotations, beginning in April 2006. The clinical coordinator at Methodist was Richard Gossar. There were two other students assigned to Methodist, Judith Harvey, who is African-American, and Gabrielle Donofry, who is white. At first, Miller's relationship with Gossar was good. But in the second semester at Methodist, the students began having problems with Gossar. They believed he was overly demanding, had unrealistic expectations, and was difficult to deal with. While speaking with Harvey and Miller, Gossar would refer to them as "you people" and speak to them in a condescending manner. He would also yell at them. At one point, another CRNA at Methodist was quizzing Harvey during a procedure. When she asked if she could answer the questions after the procedure, the CRNA said, "no, a monkey could do this. What are you a monkey?"

The students arranged a meeting with the program director Michael Booth and assistant program director Julia Feliciano to discuss the issues. At this meeting, nobody mentioned racial issues or discrimination at Methodist. Booth and Feliciano met with Gossar to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, Booth and Feliciano determined that the students were not getting a sufficient variety of cases at Methodist and decided that they would rotate Methodist students to other sites.

After the second semester at Methodist, all of the students went to other hospitals. Miller was transferred to Jefferson Hospital ("Jefferson" or "Jefferson Hospital"). She successfully completed the Fall 2006 semester at Jefferson, and returned to Methodist for the Spring 2007 semester.

Back at Methodist, Gossar remained the clinical coordinator. Gossar continued his previous treatment of Miller, and Miller again spoke with program director Booth. Booth and Feliciano met with the chief of the department at Methodist, and decided that Gossar should be removed as clinical coordinator. Carol Staffieri was chosen to replace Gossar. After Gossar was removed, Miller continued to have issues with the CRNAs at Methodist. On April 4, 2007, Miller left early after a miscommunication with a CRNA who had not meant for her to go home after cleaning up a room. On April 17, 2007, an operation was to be performed on a patient's right arm. Miller took the patient's blood pressure and left the room, leaving the cuff on the patient's left arm. As a result of the blood pressure cuff on the patient's left arm, the operation was performed on the wrong arm.

On April 20, 2007, Miller called Feliciano and left a message on her voicemail complaining of racism at Methodist. Feliciano emailed Miller saying she would like a meeting to follow up. Feliciano also suggested that Miller should contact student services at the University to speak to them about the racial issues and make a complaint of discrimination. Miller spoke with student services, but decided not to file a formal complaint after hearing that it would be a long process of investigation. Feliciano met with Staffieri to discuss Miller's complaint and ask her if she witnessed any discrimination. After this, Miller says she overheard a meeting with the CRNAs and other staff at Methodist where Staffieri told them of her discrimination complaint and told them to "watch out" for Miller and not discriminate against her. Miller says that the CRNAs at Methodist stopped speaking to her.

On May 28, 2007, a meeting was held to discuss Miller's performance in the nurse anesthetist program. A meeting had not yet occurred to discuss Miller's discrimination charge. At this meeting, Miller was told that her evaluations at Methodist were not on track with those of her classmates. She was given a plan for improvement and placed on probation until August 2007. Despite the probation, Miller still passed the Spring 2007 semester. After this meeting, Miller was transferred away from Methodist and back to Jefferson. Before returning to Jefferson, Miller spent a month at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, where she received excellent reviews. Miller asked Feliciano if she could remain at Lourdes for another rotation instead of going to Jefferson, but Feliciano told her she needed to go to Jefferson.

Back at Jefferson, the clinical coordinator was Marian Feil. Feil and Miller clashed almost immediately. Miller believed that Feil was treating her harshly, suspecting that Feil had heard of Miller's complaint of discrimination at Methodist. During a discussion about Miller's scheduling issues, Feil said to Miller that she had "heard what had happened at Methodist" and Miller was not going to "get over" like she did there. Feil thought Miller was trying to manipulate the schedule. Feil referred to Miller as "you people" on at least one occasion, saying that she should consider something other than anesthesia. At one point, Feil yelled at Miller for arriving early to set up for an operation, believing that Miller was trying to manipulate the schedule by arriving early so she could leave early. Nevertheless, Miller received satisfactory ratings from Feil in her summative evaluation at the end of the semester, except in categories relating to attendance. Feliciano ended Miller's probation, and Miller passed the Summer 2007 semester.

Miller continued to have issues during the Fall 2007 semester at Jefferson. On October 4, 2007, Miller was working with CRNA Katherine Celebre. Miller was not performing the procedure properly and was unprepared, so Celebre completed the procedure. On October 8, 2007, Miller was working with a doctor for a spinal procedure. After Miller prematurely removed a needle, the procedure needed to be done again. Miller was criticized for this and for breaking sterility during the procedure. Miller received detailed negative evaluations for these incidents. After the University heard of these two incidents, Miller was counseled that she was in jeopardy of being dismissed from the program. Miller was informed that she needed to comply with a number of conditions to successfully complete the semester, including not receiving any unsatisfactory or requires improvement marks.

Miller received a number of mid-semester evaluations that were critical of her performance. These evaluations came from Feil, Celebre and Debra O'Connor. The CRNAs believed that Miller was not at the point she should be at that stage in her education, and worried that she could not function independently as a CRNA. After this, in November 2007, Miller went to Deborah Heart and Lung Hospital for a rotation. Miller received positive evaluations at Deborah, but her weekly evaluations and care plans were delayed in getting to Jefferson.

After returning to Jefferson in December, she received notification informing her that she remained in jeopardy of failing the program. The notification reiterated objectives that Miller needed to satisfy to remain in the program. In December, a number of CRNAs evaluated Miller's performance negatively, observing that her performance was unsatisfactory and unsafe. These CRNAs included Lisa Loonstyn Gormley, who recounted several incidents of unsafe and subpar work, and Eileen Dirvin, who rated Miller as unsatisfactory in eight categories. As a result, Feliciano informed Miller that she would receive a failing grade, and be dismissed from the program.

On January 8, 2008, the Associate Dean for Graduate Programs sent Miller a letter recommending her dismissal. The Promotion and Progression Committee reviewed and approved the recommendation that Miller be dismissed due to her inadequate clinical performance. Feliciano then denied Miller's grade appeal, and advised her of her right to appeal the decision in accordance with the student handbook. Miller appealed to the Dean of the School of Nursing, Dr. Schaal. After independently reviewing Miller's file, Dr. Schaal denied Miller's appeal on February 11, 2008, advising her that she found that she had failed to demonstrate progress in meeting course objectives or meet the guidelines set forth by faculty. On February 28, 2008, Miller appealed the Dean's decision to the Grade Appeals Board at the University, which consisted of five individuals who were not connected to the nurse anesthetist program. The Board heard testimony from witnesses offered by Miller and the University and considered documentation in Miller's file, including clinical evaluations. The Board voted unanimously to deny Miller's appeal and sent her a letter explaining its decision, noting that Feliciano had properly considered a broad range of evaluations. Miller then appealed the Board's decision to the Dean of Jefferson College of Health Professionals, Dr. Erdmann, who met with Miller, considered her appeal and the documents supporting it and issued a decision denying her appeal.

Separate from the appeal process, the Dean of Student Affairs conducted an investigation into Miller's charge of racial discrimination. The Dean interviewed people from Methodist and Jefferson Hospitals, ultimately concluding that there was no evidence of harassment, discrimination, or bias. Rather, he judged the staff behavior as related to Miller's performance issues. Miller had the ...

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