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Hart v. University of Pittsburgh and Thomas Braun

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 25, 2014

WILLIAM D. HART, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH and THOMAS BRAUN, individually and in his official capacity as Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

ROBERT C. MITCHELL, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, William D. Hart, brings this action against Defendants, the University of Pittsburgh and Thomas Braun, Dean of the School of Dental Medicine (SDM), alleging claims of racial discrimination in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000d to 2000d-7 (Title VI) and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and related state law claims arising out of his suspension from the SDM for an academic integrity violation on September 6, 2012.

Currently pending before the Court for disposition are cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's motion will be denied and Defendants' motion will be granted with respect to Counts I, II, III and V of the Complaint and denied with respect to Count IV.

Facts

Hart was accepted into the University's SDM and began the first year of its graduate program in August 2011. (Hart Dep. at 34-38.)[1] Defendant Thomas Braun (Dean Braun) is and was the Dean of the SDM at the time Hart was accepted into and started the program at the SDM. (Braun Dep. at 4.)[2]

Hart was the recipient of a Diversity Scholarship offered through the SDM in the amount of $16, 000 per academic year. (Hart Dep. at 37.) Hart had to maintain a 3.0 Grade Point Average ("GPA") in order to retain the Diversity Scholarship each year. (Hart Dep. at 81.) Hart became aware of the SDM's Guidelines on Academic Integrity (the "Guidelines") when he received a copy of the SDM Student Handbook (the "Handbook") during his class orientation in August 2011. (Hart Dep. at 38, 40-41 & Ex. 3.)

The Forward of the Handbook states that:

This handbook has been compiled in a continuing effort to provide useful information about the University of Pittsburgh, School of Dental Medicine.... The provisions of the Guidelines for Dental Students are not an irrevocable contract between the student and the University. The University reserves the right to change any provisions or requirements at any time within the student's term of residence.

(Hart Dep. Ex. 3 at 1.) The Guidelines are included within the Handbook, and neither document has been revised since June 2007. (Braun Dep. at 11.)[3] The Handbook allows students to understand the process and understand what to expect from the administration and the school. (Braun Dep. at 9-13.)[4]

Hart successfully completed the Fall 2011 and Spring 2012 semesters at the SDM maintaining a 3.0 GPA. (Hart Dep. at 44.) He had to complete classes during the Summer term of 2012, which ran from May to July 2012, in order to move on to the second year of the SDM curriculum. (Hart Dep. at 44.)

In the Summer of 2012, Hart took an oral biology course with Dr. John J. Baker on immunology. (Hart Dep. at 45.) In approximately June 2012, another student in Hart's immunology class, T.K., was caught cheating by a proctor during the third of the four exams in immunology. (Hart Dep. at 47-48, 51.) Dr. Kenneth Etzel was the proctor who was monitoring the immunology exam in June 2012. (Hart Dep. at 47-48; Etzel Dep. at 29-30.[5])

T.K., a Caucasian student, later admitted that he brought notecards into the exam room, which were confiscated by Dr. Etzel during the exam. (Hart Dep. at 48-50.) The first year students were aware that proctors were monitoring their exams for cheating in the Summer of 2012. (Hart Dep. at 51.)

The Final Exam

The fourth and final exam for Dr. Baker's immunology course was scheduled to take place on July 23, 2012 at noon in the "SIM lab." (Hart Dep. at 51-52; Etzel Dep. at 60.) Dr. Etzel and Dr. Wilbert Milligan proctored the July 23, 2012 exam. (Hart Dep. at 62; Etzel Dep. at 63-65.) In order to prepare for Dr. Baker's final exam, Hart went back over the slides that were presented in Dr. Baker's class and any notes or highlighting he may have added to the same. (Hart Dep. at 53-54, 57.) Hart did not create his own study guides or use the study guides provided to him from his mentors. (Hart Dep. at 56-57.) Hart also reviewed prior exams from Dr. Baker's class that had been released. (Hart Dep. at 55, 57.)

Hart arrived for the exam at approximately 11:00 a.m., about one hour before the exam was about to start. (Hart Dep. at 57-58.) While waiting for the exam to begin, Hart studied Dr. Baker's slides from class, conversed with his fellow students regarding the exam, and reviewed old tests in advance of the test. (Hart Dep. at 59-60.)

At 11:55 p.m., just five minutes before the exam was about to begin, Hart emailed himself a.pdf file of one of Dr. Baker's prior exams with an answer key at the back. (Hart Dep. at 240-41 & Ex. 34.) Hart did not know if this exam was previously released, although he believed that the exam was on a disc that he purchased from second-year students. (Hart Dep. at 240-41.)

During the final two lectures before the exam, Dr. Baker had announced that students should bring only their pencils to the exam. (Etzel Dep. Ex. 6.) Plaintiff testified that he did not recall hearing any such announcement. (Hart Dep. at 62.)

When the doors to the SIM lab opened at 11:55 a.m., Hart left his keys and phone at the table in the front of the room where the lecturer normally stands. (Hart Dep. at 61-63.) Shortly thereafter, Dr. Baker announced that the test would be moved to Room 355 due to a scheduling conflict regarding the SIM lab. (Hart Dep. at 61-63; Etzel Dep. at 60 & Ex. 6.)

After learning that the exam room had changed, Hart collected his phone and keys from the lecturer's table and placed his cell phone in the side pocket of his scrubs. (Hart Dep. at 63-64.) Hart did not ensure that his cell phone was turned off before placing the phone in his pocket. (Hart Dep. at 64.) The class took their seats in Room 355 and the Scantron sheet and exam were passed out approximately 5-10 minutes later. (Hart Dep. at 64-65.) Hart indicated that it took 5-10 minutes to move to Room 355 and another 5-10 minutes to pass out the exam. Hart recalls receiving the exam on his desk. (Hart Dep. at 67.)

After receiving the exam, Hart contends that his cell phone began to vibrate in his pocket; he estimates it vibrated more than three times because it seemed like "it just kept going" and it was bothering the student in front of him. (Hart Dep. at 69, 74.) Hart was aware that he could have easily shut the phone off entirely, but he testified that he just did not think of doing that in the moment. (Hart Dep. at 75.)

Dr. Etzel entered Room 355 to help proctor Dr. Baker's exam at approximately 12:15 or 12:20 p.m. (Etzel Dep. at 61, 63-65.) The class had already started the exam by the time Dr. Etzel arrived to proctor the exam, although Dr. Etzel could not state specifically that Hart had started his exam. (Etzel Dep. at 61.)

Dr. Etzel testified that he noticed that Hart was not in the seat where he usually sat for lectures (in the front); rather, Hart was sitting further back against the wall bent over with his head down in a crunched-up fashion. (Etzel Dep. at 58-59 & Ex. 6.) Hart testified that he was in his usual seat, left-middle of the room. (Hart Dep. at 64:3-6, 74:24-75:2.)

Dr. Etzel approached Hart after realizing that he wasn't looking at his exam or Scantron sheet, but was looking down at something in his lap. (Etzel Dep. at 67.) When Dr. Etzel approached him, Hart looked up at Dr. Etzel, who asked him if he had something in his lap. (Hart Dep. at 69; Etzel Dep. at 67-68.) Hart then handed over his cell phone to Dr. Etzel. (Etzel Dep. at 69.)

Defendants contend that Dr. Etzel noticed that Hart's phone was on, and notes related to the subject matter of Dr. Baker's immunology course were visible on the screen. (Etzel Dep. at 69 & Ex. 6.) Dr. Etzel cannot recall if the notes were visible when he took possession of the phone or only after he tapped the screen. (Etzel Dep. at 69 & Ex. 6.)

Plaintiff disputes this statement, contending that Dr. Etzel admitted that he "couldn't say for sure" that Hart was actually looking at the notes or that his eyes were "absolutely focused on the cell phone, " that he could not see what Hart had in his lap, and that he could not recall whether the screen was illuminated or dark. (Etzel Dep. at 65:15-16, 66:23-67:1, 68:18-69:12 & Ex. 6.) Dr. Milligan, the other proctor in the room, never saw the cell phone, never saw Hart looking down or any evidence of cheating. (Etzel Dep. at 64:1-8.) After turning his phone over to Dr. Etzel, Hart completed the exam. (Hart Dep. at 75.)

After he turned in his finished exam, Hart apologized to Dr. Baker, who handed Hart back his phone and suggested that he speak with Dr. Etzel. (Hart Dep. at 76.) Hart emailed Dr. Etzel an apology that afternoon. (Hart Dep. at 79 & Ex. 7.) Dr. Etzel met with Hart the next day to explain his options for resolving his academic integrity violation. (Hart Dep. at 84-86.)

The Process

Hart emailed Dr. Baker on July 25, 2012 to discuss meeting with him to work out a resolution. (Hart Dep. at 89-90 & Ex. 9.) Hart acknowledges that Dr. Etzel provided him information regarding the academic integrity process but also recommended that he seek advice from other individuals within the SDM regarding this situation. (Hart Dep. at 90 & Ex. 9.)

When Hart met with Dr. Baker in person, Dr. Baker offered Hart the same resolution that was offered to T.K., who was caught with unauthorized materials in an exam just a few weeks before Hart was caught with his cell phone. (Hart Dep. at 91-94 & Ex. 10; Braun Dep. Ex. 8; Etzel Dep. at 31-32.) T.K. is Caucasian. (Hart Dep. at 50.) Specifically, T.K. took a zero on the exam, an "F" in the course and agreed to take the course over again, which required him to wait an entire year until it was offered again (and he could not take any other classes in the interim). (Hart Dep. at 92 & Ex. 10; Braun Dep. Ex. 8.)

Dr. Etzel made the same accusations of cheating against Hart as he did against T.K. (Hart Dep. at 195-96.) Hart rejected the resolution proposed by Dr. Baker. (Hart Dep. at 95-97 & Ex. 12.) Dr. Etzel suggested that Hart consider the proposal that was accepted by T.K. because "the integrity board will only be looking at the facts and no matter what your intentions were, they will be presented with what happened during that exam." (Hart Dep. at 98-99 & Ex. 12.)

Hart voluntarily chose to proceed with a hearing before the Academic Integrity Hearing Board (the "Board"). (Hart Dep. at 99.) Hart received a letter dated July 31, 2012 from Dr. Jean O'Donnell, the Interim Academic Integrity Hearing Officer, which identified the academic integrity violations with which he had been charged. (Hart Dep. at 99-100 & Ex. 13.)

A student may be found to have violated the SDM's Guidelines, inter alia, if he:

1. Refers during an academic evaluation to materials or sources, or employs devices, not authorized by the faculty member.
7. Practices any form of deceit in an academic evaluation proceeding.

(Hart Dep. at 41 & Ex. 4 at 1.) Hart notes that this letter did not contain a narrative of any factual allegations and did not contain any identification of witnesses or evidence that would be presented, unlike Dr. Baker's detailed letter to Dr. O'Donnell, also dated July 31, 2012, which there is no evidence was ever sent to Hart. (Braun Dep. at 22-24; Etzel Dep. at 9-10.)[6] See Braun Dep. Ex. 4.[7]

Hart was advised through Dr. O'Donnell's letter that he would be contacted by Dr. James Guggenheimer, the Chair of the SDM's Academic Integrity Hearing Board, regarding the details of the hearing. (Hart Dep. at 100 & Ex. 13.) Dr. O'Donnell's letter also included a copy of the SDM's Guidelines, which Hart took home with him and read. (Hart Dep. at 101 & Ex. 13).

Hart met with Dr. O'Donnell in person and signed the July 31, 2012 letter. (Hart Dep. at 101-02 & Ex. 13.) Hart testified he did not have any questions about the academic integrity process after reviewing Dr. O'Donnell's letter and the Guidelines. (Hart Dep. at 102.)

Hart understood that the persons charging him with integrity violations were Dr. Baker, who taught the course during which his cell phone was confiscated, and Dr. Etzel, who confiscated the phone. (Hart Dep. at 102.) Hart also communicated with Dr. Baker and Dr. Etzel frequently between July 26 and July 31, 2012, regarding the academic integrity violations for which he had been accused. (Hart Dep. Exs. 6, 7, 8, 9, 12.)

August 6, 2012 Guggenheimer/Etzel Meeting

On August 6, 2012, more than three weeks before the hearing (which would take place on August 29, 2012), Dr. Guggenheimer went to Dr. Etzel's office to discuss Hart's case and began by asking him if Hart "has a chip on his shoulder." (Etzel Dep. at 11:13-12:2.)[8] Dr. Guggenheimer stated that, if he did ask this question, it was "perhaps to determine if [Hart] was arrogant or was not behaving properly in regard to the student/faculty relationship, but he admitted that such information was not relevant to determining whether Hart had violated the academic integrity code. (Guggenheimer Dep. at 20-21.)[9] In his notes of the meeting, Dr. Etzel wrote that, when asked this question, he:

did not reply since this was inappropriate. [Guggenheimer] continued to ask me what I observed, etc. and I told him to wait for the review. He said he just needed some facts-why?
He also started to talk about the members of the jury. I again expressed my dislike, unfair system. I asked what the criteria were for the jurors (faculty). He said they have to have "experience" (where did THAT come from and was that true in the past?) and the[y] cannot be administration. I doubt this has been adhered to prior to this time.
Bottom line-[Guggenheimer] should be handling this in more confidence!

(Etzel Dep. Ex. 1 at UP0393.)[10] See Etzel Dep. at 12-13.[11] Dr. Etzel felt that all of the information should have been asked and discussed in the hearing itself when Hart was present. (Etzel Dep. at 16.)[12]

As the meeting continued, Dr. Guggenheimer discussed in detail with Dr. Etzel what his testimony would be at the hearing, and he also met separately with Dr. Baker and discussed with him in detail what his testimony would be. (Guggenheimer Dep. at 20.) He never informed Hart of these meetings. (Guggenheimer Dep. at 21-22.)[13]

Hart Prepares for the Hearing

Hart met with Dr. Guggenheimer on or about August 10, 2012, at which time he was given a copy of a letter that he signed acknowledging the date, time and location of his academic integrity hearing. (Hart Dep. at 105-06 & Ex. 14.) Dr. Guggenheimer told Hart to read the Guidelines, focus on the upcoming hearing, and to feel free to reach out to him with any questions. (Hart Dep. at 106.) After reviewing the Guidelines, Hart did not request that anyone within the SDM serve as his representative at the hearing, although this is permitted. (Hart Dep. at 110 & Ex. 3 at 18 ¶ 6.)

Hart did not speak to any of his classmates or other SDM faculty members about testifying on his behalf at the hearing, despite knowing that he had the right to do so. (Hart Dep. at 110.) Dr. Guggenheimer advised Hart that August 29, 2012 was earliest possible date that a hearing could be held due to previously scheduled vacations of hearing board members, including a student representative who was getting married and would be out of town on his honeymoon until classes resumed in late August 2012. (Hart Dep. at 111-12; Guggenheimer Dep. at 15-16.)

Hart knew that he had the right to question witnesses against him, but did not prepare any questions in advance of the August 29, 2012 hearing, preferring instead to wait to hear their testimony before deciding what questions to ask. (Hart Dep. at 112.) Hart stated that he "really didn't have too much to go on in terms of preparing other witnesses, what they might say" and that he "only knew that I was being charged of 1 and 7, so I didn't know the details." (Hart Dep. at 112.)

Hart asked Dr. Guggenheimer which faculty members would be sitting on the Board at the time of his hearing, and Dr. Guggenheimer provided such information the following day. (Hart Dep. at 121-22.) The Board would consist of Dr. Guggenheimer as chair, three faculty members and two students. (Hart Dep. at 121-22; Guggenheimer Dep. at 22; Braun Dep. at 28-29.)

August 14, 2012 Letter

On August 14, 2012, Dr. Guggenheimer prepared a summary of Dr. Etzel's expected testimony and sent it to the three faculty members of the Board, but not to the two student members or to Hart. He did not provide the faculty members with Hart's version of the events. (Guggenheimer Dep. at 23-25 & Ex. 1.)[14] He stated that his purpose in sending this letter was to give the faculty members of the Board "a heads up on that since I didn't want them to be blindsided by hearing this for the first time and also to allow them to get a mind set to deal with the hearing." (Guggenheimer Dep. at 24-25.)

Dr. Etzel testified that Dr. Guggenheimer's summary contained one inaccuracy-it stated that he (Etzel) had touched the phone screen and another page of microbiology notes came up, but Dr. Etzel had not stated that. (Etzel Dep. at 22-23.)[15]

Hart Meets With Dr. Baker

Hart began drafting a letter to Dr. Baker on the evening of August 26, 2012 to request a meeting to discuss an alternative resolution. (Hart Dep. at 124-27). Dr. Baker met with Hart in advance of the hearing, at which time Hart inquired about other resolutions Dr. Baker had offered to students in the past. (Hart Dep. at 128.) Dr. Baker only discussed the resolution he offered to T.K. (Hart Dep. at 128.) The day before his hearing, Hart sent Dr. Baker an alternative resolution to the one Dr. Baker initially proposed to him and which was also proposed to T.K. (Hart Dep. 128-29 & Ex. 19.)

Hart's proposed resolution did not involve Hart retaking Dr. Baker's immunology course or being suspended from school for any period of time. (Hart Dep. at 127.) Dr. Baker responded to Hart's proposed resolution via email the following morning, stating that the problem with accepting Hart's proposed resolution was that it was much less severe than the school standard and what has been offered to previous students. (Hart Dep. at 134 & Ex. 21.)

Dr. Baker reoffered Hart the resolution that he had offered Hart immediately following the July 23, 2012 exam, which was the same resolution offered to T.K. (Hart Dep. at 135 & Ex. 21.) If Hart had accepted Dr. Baker's reoffered proposal, his GPA would have dropped below a 3.0 and he would have lost his Diversity Scholarship. (Hart Dep. at 135-36.) Nevertheless, Dr. Baker warned Hart that "if the hearing board concludes that [he] committed an academic integrity violation, the punishment can be much more severe that what [was] offered to [him]." (Hart Dep. at 137 & Ex. 21.)[16]

Hart did not follow up with Dr. Baker or anyone else with experience with the academic integrity hearing process to learn what those more severe sanctions could be. (Hart Dep. at 137-40.) Hart prepared a hearing statement and sent it to the members of the Board on the morning of his hearing to let them know a little about himself and his side of the story. (Hart Dep. at 140-41 & Ex. 22.) Hart did not see any ...


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