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Park v. Temple University

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 20, 2018

SEAN PARK
v.
TEMPLE UNIVERSITY, et al.

          MEMORANDUM

          DITTER, JUDGE.

         Before me is Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint.[1]Dr. Sean Park alleges that Temple University violated his due process rights provided by 42 U.S.C. § 1983 when it expelled him from its School of Dentistry.[2] He also contends that the individual defendants defamed him. Dr. Park also brings breach of contract and unjust enrichment claims solely against Temple. For the reasons discussed, Defendants' motion will be granted.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[3]

         In 2013, Dr. Park voluntarily surrendered his dentistry license in California and Texas after admitting to billing, advertising and forgery of documents. Dr. Park subsequently applied to the Graduate Specialty Program in Periodontology and Oral Implantology as well as the Masters program in Oral Biology at Temple University's Kornberg School of Dentistry (“the Program”). The application process required an application and interview with four members of Temple's staff. The Program's application requested information on professional licenses but did not inquire about the validity or current status of state professional licenses held by the applicant.[4] Dr. Park was accepted into the Program in June 2014. While enrolled in the Program, Dr. Park practiced with a training permit under supervising staff licensure.

         On May 31, 2016, a patient reported to Temple that Dr. Park had lost his dental license. On June 2, 2016, Dean Amid Ismail, Dr. Leona Sperrazza, and Dr. Keisuke Wada questioned Plaintiff regarding the status of his dental licenses.[5] Dr. Park disclosed that he had surrendered his licenses to practice dentistry in California and Texas. He stated that the surrenders were based on “allegations involving billing, advertising, and forgery of documents at a dental practice for which [Dr. Park] had previously worked.” See Am. Compl. ¶ 33. Dr. Park noted that his attorney would provide more details and was given until June 8, 2016, to provide the information. On June 6, 2016, Dr. Park's attorney provided a letter to Dean Ismail detailing the circumstances of Dr. Park's license surrender and acknowledging that by surrendering his licenses, Dr. Park had conceded that he was guilty of the charges brought against him. See Am. Compl. ¶ 40.

         On June 15, 2016, Dr. Park received notice that Temple was charging him with a violation of the University Code of Student Conduct, Article III, Paragraph C, Section 10 which prohibits: “Providing false or misleading information, verbally or in writing, to the university or university personnel, ” including “ . . . providing false or misleading information during a disciplinary proceeding or investigation related to potential policy violations.” See Am. Compl. ¶ 46. The notice specified that the charge against Dr. Park was “Failure to inform the Kornberg School of Dentistry of the voluntary surrender of [Dr. Park's] license to practice dentistry by the California Board of Dentistry.” Id. at ¶ 48.

         The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects against state deprivations of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. As a graduate student at Temple, a public university, Dr. Park had a property interest in his continued education and enrollment. See Palmer ex rel. Palmer v. Merluzzi, 868 F.2d 90, 95 (3d Cir. 1989) (citing Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975)).

         In evaluating Dr. Park's claims, due process requires weighing: “(1) the private interests at stake, (2) the governmental interests at stake, and (3) the fairness and reliability of the existing procedures and the probable value, if any, of additional procedural safeguards.” Palmer, 868 F.2d at 95 (citing Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976)). It is quite obvious that Dr. Park had an interest in remaining as a student at Temple and equally obvious that Temple had an interest in maintaining its standards of conduct. The pivotal question then is whether Dr. Park had a fair hearing as due process requires.

         Temple has an established procedure when a student has been charged with violating the University Code of Student Conduct.[6] To explain this procedure, I have turned to the Amended Complaint, an exhibit attached to it, the plaintiff's brief opposing the motion to dismiss, and a uncontroverted exhibit provided by the defendants.

         When a violation has been charged, the matter is heard by a then-appointed panel called the Honor Board. The Board may make findings and a recommendation to the dean. A review of the Board's action may be taken to what is called the Appeal Review Committee. Based on all that he has before him, the dean makes a decision concerning the student. As will be shown, that was the procedure that was followed here.

         At an Honor Board hearing held on June 23, 2016, to consider the charge that Dr. Park had provided false or misleading information on June 2, Dr. Sperrazza, the Associate Dean for Patient Care, testified on behalf of Temple and Dr. Park presented two witnesses. At the end of the hearing, the Honor Board concluded by majority vote that Park had “more than likely violated the honor code.” Dr. Park was told that the Board would discuss a recommended penalty, relay that recommendation to the Dean and that Dr. Park would be contacted. The Honor Board ultimately recommended a sanction of “probation through graduation.” Dr. Park was not informed of the Honor Board's decision.

         Instead, on June 26, 2016, Dr. Park received notice of a second Honor Board hearing. The notice asserted the same violation of the Conduct Code, providing false or misleading information to the university or university personnel; however, the “specification of the charges” provided was more detailed. Specifically, the notice stated that the hearing was being convened to address:

Failure to fully and accurately disclose, under direct questioning by the Dean and Associate Dean for Patient Care [Dr. Sperrazza] during a formal investigation of a possible violation of the School of Dentistry's Honor Code, the specific charges brought against the resident by the Dental Board of California and the Texas Board of Dental Examiners, namely that the resident failed to disclose the below information while stating that the disciplinary charges against his California dental license related solely to billing errors committed by his employers. . .[7]

See Am. Compl. ¶ 57. The second hearing was held on July 1, 2016, before predominantly the same panel who had participated in the first hearing.[8] Dr. Sperrazza testified once again, but Dr. Park did not present any witnesses. By majority vote, the Honor Board found that Dr. Park had violated the Code of Student Conduct and recommended to Dean Ismail that Dr. Park be expelled from the Program. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 64, 119. Dr. Park was notified of this decision.

         On July 11, 2016, Dr. Park appealed the decision of the Board to the Appeal Review Committee arguing that there was new evidence and procedural flaws in the hearing process. On August 12, 2016, Dr. Park received notice that the Appeal Review Committee had unanimously decided to uphold the Honor Board's findings. Thus, his appeal was denied. See Am. Compl. ¶ 101.

         Having considered this information, Dean Ismail decided that Park should be expelled from the Program and he was expelled.

         Within the school setting, there are two types of dismissals - for disciplinary purposes and for academic reasons. There is a significant difference in the procedural safeguards required when a student has violated valid rules of conduct versus a student who has failed to meet academic standards. Bd of Curators of Univ. of Mo. v. Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78, 87-90 (1978). A judgment on academic grounds is by its nature more subjective and evaluative than the typical factual questions presented in the average disciplinary decision. Id. As a result, the procedural requirements for academic dismissal are far less stringent than the requirements for the fact-finding proceedings traditionally required in a disciplinary proceeding.[9] Id.

         I agree with Judge Beetlestone's previous thought that Dr. Park's dismissal was disciplinary in nature. The charges and hearings held in this case addressed Dr. Park's failure to disclose relevant information on his application and, upon further inquiry, to Temple's faculty. The Complaint alleges that Dr. Park was expelled for violations of the Student Conduct Code. There was no discussion of his clinical work or school grades. As a result, I conclude that Dr. Park was expelled on disciplinary grounds and will apply the more rigorous standard of review.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) only requires “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief;” however, the Supreme Court has stated that there must be “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corporation v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         If Temple provided Dr. Park with due process, he has not stated a claim for which I can afford him relief and his First Amended Complaint must therefore be dismissed.

         A. Fourteenth ...


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