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Park v. Temple University

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 24, 2017

SEAN PARK, Plaintiff,
v.
TEMPLE UNIVERSITY, AMID ISMAIL, LEONA SPERAZZA, BELINDA BROWN-JOSEPH, MEHRAN HOSSAINI ZADEH, MATTHEW PALERMO, JEFFREY GODEL & JOHN DOES 1-10, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          WENDY BEETLESTONE, J.

         Plaintiff, Dr. Sean Park, challenges Temple University's decision to expel him from a graduate program at its School of Dentistry. He asserts violations of his due process and equal protection rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against each of the Defendants as well as state law claims of breach of contract and unjust enrichment against Temple, and retaliation and defamation against all Defendants. Before the Court is the Defendants' motion to dismiss his Complaint.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Before he applied to Temple, Park practiced dentistry in California. But, in 2013, he surrendered his California and Texas dental licenses after being accused of - and admitting to - billing, advertising, and documentary irregularities. He did not disclose the surrender on his Temple application and, once he was accepted as a student, he practiced there under a training permit.

         Two years after Park's matriculation, when a patient reported his license status to Temple, Defendants, Dean Amid Ismail and Associate Dean Leona Sperazza, met with and questioned him about it. He briefly described the situation and, a few days later, his attorney sent a letter to Temple describing the surrender in greater detail.

         Following these developments, Park was cited for violating provisions of Temple University's Student Conduct Code. Temple held two hearings each concerning aspects of how he handled the matter of the surrender of his licenses in his dealings with the university. The hearing panels were made up of Temple faculty members, including Defendants Mehran Hossaini Zadeh, Matthew Palermo and Jeffrey Godel. Once the hearings were complete, Dean Ismail considered the panels' recommendations and decided to expel Park.

         Park timely appealed the decision on the grounds that he had new evidence to offer and that the procedure was flawed - the only two grounds upon which appeal is permitted - but his appeal was denied on both grounds. Here Park continues to maintain that there were numerous procedural defects in the hearings, the appeal, and Dean Ismail's final review and recommendation. He also contends that Dr. Belinda Brown-Joseph, who was in charge of making clinical assignments, favored “United States-born white students over foreign-born students, ” a belief he reported to another faculty member, Dr. Wada, shortly before the expulsion.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “In light of Twombly, ‘it is no longer sufficient to allege mere elements of a cause of action; instead a complaint must allege facts suggestive of [the proscribed] conduct.'” Great W. Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 177 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Fourteenth Amendment Due Process (Count One)

         Plaintiff asserts a Section 1983 claim for violation of due process against all Defendants. In their Motion to Dismiss, they argue these claims must be dismissed: 1) against all Defendants because the Complaint reveals that Park was afforded all the process that was constitutionally required; and, 2) against the individually named Temple employees because they are entitled to qualified immunity.

         The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution guards against state deprivations of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Graduate students at public universities like Temple have a property interest in their continued education and enrollment. See Palmer ex rel. Palmer v. Merluzzi, 868 F.2d 90 (3d Cir. 1989) (citing Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975)[1]); see also Gorman v. Univ. of Rhode Island, 837 F.2d 7, 12 (1st Cir. 1988) (citing Goss, 419 U.S. at 574-75). It is undisputed that Plaintiff has alleged an interest that qualifies for due process protections. The critical question is whether he has alleged facts that would entitle him to more process than he received.

         To answer that question, it is necessary to distinguish between dismissals that are for academic reasons and those that stem from disciplinary issues. For policy reasons, academic institutions are afforded great discretion in judging students' academic performance. Bd. of Curators of Univ. of Missouri v. Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78, 92 (1978). Accordingly, “when a student is discharged for academic reasons, an informal faculty evaluation is all that is required.” Hankins v. Temple Univ., 829 F.2d 437, 445 (3d Cir. 1987). In contrast, disciplinary expulsions may require educational institutions to afford students more process. Goss, 419 U.S. at 581. Although Defendants contend Plaintiff's dismissal was for purely academic reasons, that conclusion is not compelled by ...


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