New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

MATTHEWS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2000-015-105, Claim No. 100213, Motion No. M-62366


Defendant's motion for summary judgment dismissing the claim where claimant failed to raise a triable issue of fact relative to breach of contract to provide necessary and appropriate mentoring services to claimant while a student in Empire State College Graduate Division.

Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant's attorney:
Susan Matthews, Pro Se
Defendant's attorney:
Honorable Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General
By: Michael W. Friedman, EsquireAssistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
December 4, 2000
Saratoga Springs

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Defendant's motion for summary judgment dismissing the claim pursuant to CPLR 3212 is granted. Claimant was a student enrolled in a Master of Arts Degree Program at Empire State College, a non-traditional institution of higher learning established and operated under section 352 of the Education Law. Claimant alleges that she successfully completed all required course work for the Master's Degree in Business and Policy Studies except for her final project, the requirements of which are not specified in the motion papers submitted by either party but appear to include a detailed paper or thesis upon an approved topic. Claimant alleges that her final project was a position paper on welfare reform and submitted evidence (Exhibit A) demonstrating that the final project had received the necessary initial approvals of her mentor, the chair (presumably of the Business Department) and the Director of Graduate Studies. These approvals occurred on July 28, 1997 and August 5, 1997.

According to the claim (defendant's Exhibit A), claimant was assigned a mentor named Dr. Joe Angiello sometime in 1996. She alleges in the document attached to the claim that he "never contacted me or advised me about completion of work." According to that same document, on January 26, 1999 claimant was assigned a different mentor (Dr. Evelyn Wells) who claimant asserts failed to contact or communicate with her for almost three months after being assigned and prior to the filing of this claim on April 22, 1999. The claim alleges an accrual date of January 26, 1999 which, perhaps coincidentally, is the date of Evelyn Wells' assignment as claimant's replacement mentor. The claim contains references to emotional pain, mental anguish, fraud, discrimination and breach of contract in laundry list fashion but fails to provide specific allegations as to how claimant was injured by the named employees of the college. She does not allege that she ever completed the requirements for her degree or that any action was taken by the college to prevent her from completing the degree requirements.

The grounds for the motion are not specified but defendant's attorney alleges that the affidavits of the claimant's assigned mentors submitted on the motion demonstrate that "the State University of New York neither committed any tortious act or breached any implied or expressed contract with the claimant." In support of the motion the defendant offered the affidavit of an Assistant Attorney General, the pleadings and the affidavits of Professors Joseph Angiello and Evelyn Wells who were assigned as first readers or mentors on the claimant's final project. The professors detailed in their affidavits their contacts with the claimant and the assistance and advice which they provided her regarding the final project.

In opposition to the motion the claimant submitted a document which, while not in proper affidavit form, will be treated as such by the Court. In that affidavit claimant outlines the interaction between herself and representatives of Empire State College relative to her final project.

The Court's role on a motion for summary judgment is issue finding rather than issue determination (Sillman v Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 3 NY2d 395). In order to deny summary judgment a court need only determine that a factual issue arguably exists (S.J. Capelin Assoc. v Globe Mfg. Corp., 34 NY2d 338). The standards related to summary judgment are fundamental and familiar. The moving party bears the initial burden of making a prima facie showing of its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law (Holtz v Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., 147 AD2d 857). Once such a showing has been made the "burden is shifted to the opposing party to come forward with proof in evidentiary form to show the existence of genuine triable issues of fact" (Mahar v Mahar, 111 AD2d 501, 502; Ferber v Sterndent Corp., 51 NY2d 782).

The Court finds that the defendant's submissions were sufficient to shift to the claimant the burden of showing that the defendant breached a promise, express or implied, to provide mentors who would provide her reasonable and timely assistance in completing her final project. Claimant's opposition to the motion not only failed to raise a triable issue of fact in this regard but, in fact, by the admissions contained therein allows this Court to determine this motion as a matter of law.

New York does not recognize a tort based cause of action for educational malpractice upon sound principles of public policy (Torres v Little Flower Children's Servs., 64 NY2d 119). While damages may not be recoverable for negligence based educational malpractice (Village Community School v Adler, 124 Misc 2d 817), this does not mean that conduct which occurs within an educational setting will not be actionable upon a breach of contract theory. In fact, such a cause of action will be countenanced where it does not involve the Court in determining the wisdom or propriety of educational services rendered by educational professionals (Ansari v New York Univ., 1997 WL 257473 (SDNY)).

The relationship between a student and his or her university is primarily contractual in nature (Prusack v State of New York, 117 AD2d 729). The rights and responsibilities of the parties are established and governed through the catalogs, bulletins and other documentation issued by the college or university (Andre v Pace Univ., 170 Misc 2d 893) and the failure to provide the specific services promised therein may give rise to a cognizable breach of contract action (Paladino v Adelphi Univ., 89 AD2d 85).

The instant claim, read liberally, states but a single cause of action sounding in breach of contract and based upon the alleged failure of the assigned mentors to contact claimant or to communicate with her about completing work on the claimant's final project. These allegations are belied, however, by the claimant's recitation of events contained in her affidavit in opposition to the defendant's motion. While the claimant obviously mistakes applicable dates in describing the pattern of interaction with her assigned mentors, it is clear that the defendant provided the services alleged by the claimant to be due and that the claimant has failed to establish a triable issue of fact upon her breach of contract claim. In her affidavit the claimant clearly contradicts the premise of the breach of contract claim; the failure to provide timely and reasonable assistance in completing her final project. Although she became dissatisfied with the assistance she received, including the extensive revisions to her draft final project required or suggested by her mentors, the claimant has failed to raise any triable issue of fact sufficient to preclude this Court from dismissing her claim for breach of contract as a matter of law.

Finally, even if a viable breach of contract action was presented, the claimant would be unable to recover damages for mental anguish or emotional pain since "[a]s a general rule, there is no right to recover damages for emotional distress in a breach of contract action in this State" (Hess v Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 273 AD2d 689, 690; Wehringer v Standard Security. Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 57 NY2d 757). Likewise, the recovery of punitive damages against the State is barred by public policy (Sharapata v Town of Islip, 56 NY2d 332).

The instant claim is dismissed.

December 4, 2000
Saratoga Springs, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

The Court considered the following papers:
  1. Notice of motion dated September 12, 2000;
  2. Affirmation of Michael W. Friedman in support of motion dated September 12, 2000 with exhibits;
  3. "Opposition of Motion for Summary Judgment" dated September 20, 2000.