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Gati v. University of Pittsburgh

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

May 8, 2014

DANIEL Y. GATI, Appellee
v.
UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH OF THE COMMONWEALTH SYSTEM OF HIGHER EDUCATION, Appellant

Argued January 30, 2014

Appeal from the Orders of the Court of Common Pleas, Allegheny County, Civil Division, No: GD 13-004928. Before O'REILLY, J.

Pamela W. Connelly, Pittsburgh, for appellant.

Richard B. Sandow, Pittsburgh, for appellee.

BEFORE: BOWES, WECHT AND STABILE, JJ. OPINION BY STABILE, J. CONCURRING OPINION BY WECHT, J.

OPINION

Page 724

STABILE, J.

Appellant, the University of Pittsburgh of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education, appeals from the trial court's orders of May 23 and June 27, 2013.[1] Appellant asks us to review the propriety of the trial court's May 23, 2013 preliminary injunction prohibiting Appellant from dismissing Appellee, Daniel Y. Gati, from the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine (" SDM" )[2] and requiring SDM to graduate Appellee on time unless otherwise permitted by the court. Further, Appellant asks us to review the trial court's June 27, 2013 order denying Appellant's emergency petition for relief from the May 23, 2013 injunction. For the following reasons, we vacate the May 23, 2013 and June 27, 2013 orders.[3]

This dispute arose during Appellee's fifth year as a student in the SDM.[4] In July of 2012, Appellee performed a root canal on Lawrence Wright (" Wright" ). N.T., Preliminary Injunction Hearing, 5/14/13, at 31, 54. Appellee explained the procedure to Wright and Wright verbally consented to the treatment, but he did not sign the requisite informed consent document.

Page 725

Id. Thereafter, Appellee contacted Wright on several occasions to ask him to sign the consent form. Id. At 41; Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 1, at ¶ ¶ 8-9. Nonetheless, the form remained unsigned as Wright persistently cancelled and rescheduled appointments. Id. On January 15, 2013, Appellee spoke with Wright by telephone and obtained Wright's permission to sign the consent form on his behalf. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 1, at ¶ ¶ 10-11. According to Dr. Kurt F. Summersgill (" Summersgill" ), Associate Professor at the SDM, signing a document on a patient's behalf with the patient's consent is a violation of SDM policy, but the SDM permits it on occasion because " it's a minor infraction where no one is harmed." N.T., 5/14/13, at 244-45. Appellee informed no one that he had signed the consent form on Wright's behalf.

Several days after Appellee signed the consent form for Wright, Appellee was summoned to a meeting with Dr. Marnie Oakley (" Dr. Oakley" ), Associate Dean of the SDM. N.T., Preliminary Injunction Hearing, 5/15/13, at 73. A quality care specialist brought the consent form to Dr. Oakley's attention because SDM records indicated that Wright cancelled his dental appointment on the day the form was signed. Id. at 83. At the meeting, Dr. Oakley confronted Appellee with records evincing that Wright cancelled his January 15, 2013 appointment because he had the flu. Id. at 76. Dr. Oakley asked Appellee why Wright would come in to sign a consent form on the same day Wright cancelled a dental appointment due to illness. Id. at 80. Appellee stated that Wright came to the SDM and signed the consent form that day because Wright knew it was important to Appellee. Id. at 80, 82. Appellee also told Dr. Oakley that Wright came in and signed the document at 11:00 or 11:30 a.m. on January 15. Id. at 83. In response, Dr. Oakley informed Appellee that the consent form was signed after 1:00 p.m. Id. at 81, 83. Nevertheless, Appellee continued to maintain that Wright personally signed the document. Id. at 83. Finally, Dr. Oakley confronted Appellee with other documents signed by Wright. Id. at 84. Wright's signatures were consistent except for the signature on the January 15, 2013 consent form. Id. at 84, 86-87. In response, Appellee then admitted that he signed Wright's name on the form. Id. at 87. Dr. Oakley testified that Appellee lied to her more than six times before he finally admitted that he signed the document. Id. at 83. Appellee testified that he was unnerved by the meeting, that Dr. Oakley was hostile, and that he initially misspoke. N.T., 5/14/13, at 84.

Subsequently, Dr. Oakley issued a student violation notice, dated January 18, 2013, documenting Appellee's dishonesty during their meeting. Defendant's Hearing Exhibits H16 and H17. The record further reveals that Appellee had a history of disciplinary and academic troubles at the SDM. On October 23, 2012, the SDM Student Promotions Committee [5] (" the Committee" ) issued a letter to Appellee on the subject of his " unacceptable professional behavior." Defendant's Hearing Exhibit B. The letter referred to prior concerns and warnings about Appellee's " clinical skills and unacceptable professional behavior," and stated that " any additional substantiated report of violation of the policies of the School of Dental Medicine, as outlined in the Student Handbook [...] will result in a recommendation by this Committee for dismissal from the

Page 726

School of Dental Medicine." Id. (emphasis in original).

After the Student Promotions Committee received and reviewed Dr. Oakley's student violation notice, the Committee notified Appellee, in a January 23, 2013 letter authored by Summersgill, of its recommendation that Appellee be dismissed from the SDM. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 3. The letter accused Appellee of forging a patient consent form. Id. In addition, the January 23 letter informed Appellee that he would have the opportunity to appear before the Committee and appeal its recommendation. Id. At his appeal, Appellee established that Wright authorized him to sign the consent form on Wright's behalf. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 5. In a letter of February 12, 2013, the Committee informed Appellee of its unanimous decision to uphold its decision to dismiss Appellee from the SDM. Id. The Committee conceded that Appellee did not commit forgery, inasmuch as he signed Wright's name with Wright's permission. Id. at ¶ 1.b. Nonetheless, the Committee faulted Appellee for failing to note in the record that he signed Wright's name on Wright's behalf, and for repeatedly lying to Dr. Oakley. Id. at ¶ ¶ 1.b. and 1.c.

Appellee appealed the Committee's decision to Dean Thomas W. Braun (" Dean Braun" ), arguing that the Committee improperly changed its justification for dismissing him after he established that he had Wright's permission to sign the consent form. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 6. Dean Braun upheld Appellee's dismissal in a letter dated February 25, 2013. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 7.

Having exhausted his remedies within the SDM, Appellee commenced this action on March 15, 2013 with a complaint in equity and an accompanying motion for a preliminary injunction. In both documents, Appellee alleged that the SDM breached its contract with Appellee and committed a violation of due process. Complaint in Equity, 3/15/13, at ¶ 29; Motion for Preliminary Injunction, 3/15/13, at ¶ 13.[6] With regard to the contract claim, Appellee alleged that the SDM breached the agreement " formed by [Appellee's] payment of tuition." Motion for Emergency Preliminary Injunction, 3/15/13, at ¶ 13. Appellee testified that he incurred approximately $400,000.00 in tuition and living expenses during his five years at the SDM. N.T., 5/14/13, at 95. Appellee also alleged the SDM denied him due process of law because it exonerated him on the forgery charge but dismissed him anyways on other grounds. Motion for Emergency Preliminary Injunction, 3/15/13, at ¶ 13.

In response to the lawsuit, Dean Braun, in a letter dated March 18, 2013, reinstated Appellee and instructed the Committee to reconsider Appellee's case. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 8. As a result, the trial court postponed the hearing on Appellee's injunction, which the court had scheduled for March 21, 2013. Upon reconsideration of Appellee's case, the Committee once again recommended Appellee's dismissal, in a letter of April 12, 2013. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 10. On May 9, 2013, the Committee denied Appellee's appeal of that decision. Plaintiff's Hearing Exhibit 13. Appellee did not appeal the Committee's decision to Dean Braun. Rather, he proceeded to the preliminary injunction hearing before the trial court on May 14 and 15, 2013.

On May 23, 2013, the trial court entered the first of the two orders on appeal. That

Page 727

order enjoined the SDM from dismissing Appellee for any of the reasons set forth in its various dismissal letters. Order, 5/23/13, at ¶ 1 Further, the trial court required the SDM to issue Appellee his diploma by June 30, 2013 so long as Appellee " diligently completes all clinic dental procedures reasonably made available to him by [the SDM] between the date of this [o]rder and June 30, 2013, due to the [SDM's] wrongdoing in improperly depriving [Appellee] of two (2) months of course work." Id. at ¶ 3. The May 23, 2013 order prohibited the SDM from denying Appellee his diploma without court approval. Id. at ¶ 2. The SDM filed a timely appeal from that order on June 4, 2013. Subsequently, the SDM filed a motion for a suspension of the injunction pending appeal. The trial court denied that motion on June 18, 2013. The SDM filed a similar motion in this Court, which we denied on June 27, 2013.

On June 26, 2013, as Appellee's graduation was approaching, the SDM filed in the trial court a motion for emergency relief from the trial court's May 23 preliminary injunction. The June 26 motion was the SDM's request for court approval not to graduate Appellee on time, as required by the trial court's May 23, 2013 injunction. Motion for Emergency Relief from Preliminary Injunction Order, at ¶ 2. The motion alleged that Appellee failed to complete numerous graduation requirements, despite having access to the SDM. Id. at ¶ ¶ 4, 6, 7. The motion further alleged that Appellee could not complete the necessary requirements by June 30, 2013. Id. at ¶ 8. The motion attached an affidavit from Dr. Jean O'Donnell (" O'Donnell" ), Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the SDM. Id. at Exhibit A. The affidavit states that various SDM faculty members reacted with " outrage" at being forced to assign Appellee grades he did not earn so that he could graduate on time. Id. at Exhibit A, ¶ 6. In some instances, SDM administration forced faculty to assign a passing grade where Appellee otherwise would have received a grade of incomplete. Id.[7] In one instance, Appellee was assigned a passing grade in a course he was failing due to poor academic performance. Id. at Exhibit A, ¶ 7.

After a telephone conference argument,[8] the trial court denied the SDM's emergency motion on June 27, 2013. The trial court reasoned that Appellee should graduate because he had passed the dental boards and that the SDM was to blame for Appellee's incomplete coursework. Trial Court Opinion, 8/1/13, at 2-3. The trial court also concluded that the SDM was offering the same arguments it offered in opposing the May 23, 2013 order. Id. The SDM filed a timely appeal of the June 27 order ...


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