New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

BALDRIDGE v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-028-0540, Claim No. 102684, Motion Nos. M-62752, CM-62932


Synopsis



Case Information

UID:
2001-028-0540
Claimant(s):
KENAN S. BALDRIDGE
Claimant short name:
BALDRIDGE
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
102684
Motion number(s):
M-62752
Cross-motion number(s):
CM-62932
Judge:
RICHARD E. SISE
Claimant's attorney:
HOFFMANN, HUBERT & HOFFMANN, LLPBY: Terrance J. Hoffmann, Esq.
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER, ATTORNEY GENERAL
BY: C. Michael Reger, Esq. Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
July 3, 2001
City:
Albany
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision

The following papers were read on Defendant's motion for summary judgment and Claimant's cross-motion to amend the claim:

• abNotice of Motion and Supporting Affidavits of Norma C. Riccucci (Riccucci Affidavit) with annexed Exhibits A-E, and C. Michael Reger, Esq., (Reger Affidavit) with annexed Exhibits F- I, filed November 21, 2000.
• abNotice of Cross Motion to Amend Claim and Affidavits in Opposition of Terrance J. Hoffmann, Esq. (Hoffmann Affidavit) dated January 2, 2001with annexed Exhibit A and Kenan S. Baldridge (Baldridge Affidavit) dated December 28, 2000 and annexed Exhibits A-I, filed January 10, 2001.

• abReply Affidavits of Norma C. Riccucci (Riccucci Reply) and C. Michael Reger, Esq., (Reger Reply), filed January 17, 2001.

• abReply Affidavit of Kenan S. Baldridge (Baldridge Reply), dated February 9, 2001 and not filed with Clerk's Office; no record; not file stamped.

• abDefendant's Memorandum of Law, rec'd November 21, 2000 and Defendant's Reply Memorandum of Law, rec'd January 17, 2001.

• abClaimant's Memorandum of Law, rec'd January 10, 2001 and Claimant's Reply Memorandum of Law

• abFiled Papers: Claim and Amended Verified Answer.

This claim concerns the dismissal of Claimant from the doctoral degree program at the State University of New York at Albany, Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy (University). The following recitation of facts is from the Court's review of the papers submitted on the instant applications. In 1990, following completion of his Master's Degree in Public Administration, Claimant enrolled at the University and chose to pursue a course of study in Public Management with a minor in Policy Analysis. The University issues a handbook titled "Doctoral Program Manual, Department of Public Administration and Policy, Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, State University of New York at Albany", (Program Manual). Shortly after enrolling, Claimant became employed on a full-time basis and the University permitted Claimant to continue in the doctoral program. Initially, Claimant's academic committee was comprised of Professors Thompson, McCaffrey and Balk. Claimant failed his major and minor comprehensive examinations in 1991 and 1992, respectively. In May 1993, the University advised Claimant that it was concerned about his academic progress. In 1995, Professor Balk retired and Professor Red Owl, a/k/a Ron Hoskins, (Red Owl) became Claimant's academic advisor. Red Owl encouraged Claimant to change his minor field and change his concentration to Strategic Planning and Claimant did so. In May 1996, Red Owl left the University for Long Island University. Red Owl's leaving was conveyed personally by Red Owl to Claimant. In June 1996, Professor Norma Riccucci (Riccucci) was designated Claimant's faculty advisor. In October 1996, Claimant passed his comprehensive examination in his new minor field. On two occasions in 1996 Claimant's progress was again the subject of University concern. These concerns were conveyed to Claimant by letter. Claimant continued to maintain contact with Red Owl to map out a strategy for completing his degree. However, his last contact with him was in August 1997.

On August 11, 1997 Claimant was notified that his major comprehensive examination was scheduled for September 30, 1997. Claimant sat for that exam and, in November 1997, was notified in writing that he had failed it. Thereafter, Claimant pursued reinstatement through the University's administrative appeals process and received a final determination on or about April 10, 2000 that he would not be reinstated to the doctoral program. Claimant commenced the instant action alleging Defendants breached their express and implied contracts with Claimant and seeks damages and recission of the contract.

The rule governing summary judgment is well established: "The proponent of a summary judgment motion must make a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, tendering sufficient evidence to eliminate any material issues of fact from the case" (Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 853), and such showing must be made "by producing evidentiary proof in admissible form" (Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 NY2d 557, 562). The facts pleaded in the complaint must be taken as true and are accorded every favorable inference; however, allegations consisting of bare legal conclusions as well as factual claims flatly contradicted by documentary evidence are not entitled to any such consideration (Maas v Cornell University, 94 NY2d 87, 91).

It is equally well-settled that New York State does not recognize a cause of action for

damages for educational malpractice (see, Torres v. Little Flower Children's Servs., 64 NY2d 119; Hoffman v. Board of Educ. of City of N.Y., 49 NY2d 121; Donohue v. Copiague Union Free School Dist., 47 NY2d 440; Suriano v. Hyde Park Cent. School Dist., 203 AD2d 553; Helbig v City of New York, 212 AD2d 506; Cavello v. Sherburne-Earlville Cent. School Dist., 110 AD2d 253). Allegations which the courts have characterized as educational malpractice have taken myriad forms, but can generally be divided into two broad categories. The first group are those cases which challenge the education provided to the student (see, e.g., Donohue v Copiague Union Free School Dist., supra, 47 NY2d at 442, [high school graduate lacked ability to comprehend written English]; Paladino v Adelphi University, 89 AD2d 85, [alleged failure to provide a quality education]). The second, are those allegations which attack a student's performance, such as a grade (see, Matter of Susan M. v New York Law School, 76 NY2d 241, [law student sought to challenge her dismissal from school alleging that grades she received in certain courses did not accurately reflect the knowledge she had demonstrated on the exams in those courses.]). In each circumstance the courts have refused to be drawn into the fray citing the "strong policy considerations...against the intervention of courts in controversies relating to an educational institution's judgment of a student's academic performance" (Matter of Susan M. v New York Law School, 76 NY2d 241, 245) explaining that questions of methodology and educational priorities are issues not appropriate for resolution by the courts (see, Paladino v Adelphi University, 89 AD2d 85, 87). Because of this policy of deference to educational institutions, judicial review of student academic performance is limited to a determination whether the educational institution demonstrated bad faith, arbitrariness, capriciousness, irrationality or a constitutional or statutory violation; a student's challenge to a particular grade or other academic determination relating to a genuine substantive evaluation of the student's academic capabilities, is beyond the scope of judicial review (see, Matter of Susan M. v New York Law School, 76 NY2d 241, 247, Benson v Trustees of Columbia University, 215 AD2D 255; ). Such review is appropriate in an Article 78 proceeding (Silverman v. New York Univ. Sch. of Law, 193 AD2d 411; Shields v. School of Law of Hofstra University, 77 AD2d 867; Goodwin v Keuka College, 929 F. Supp. 90, see also, CPLR 7803(3)).

The Court of Appeals has provided clear guidance in this area of law. In Hoffman v Board of Education of the City of New York, 49 NY2d 121, an inaccurate assessment of intellectual ability and a failure to reassess within two years, resulted in the child being placed in classes for "Children with Retarded Mental Development" for twelve years. The Court dismissed the complaint stating "[t]he policy considerations which prompted our decision in Donohue apply with equal force to ‘educational malpractice' actions based upon allegations of educational misfeasance and nonfeasance" (Id at 126). In Torres v. Little Flower Children's Servs., 64 NY2d 119, the Court of Appeals applied the same policy considerations in Hoffman and Donohue to bar recovery in plaintiff's action against his legal custodians for his failure to receive an appropriate education (Id at 123 ).

In Paladino v. Adelphi University, 89 AD2d 85, supra, the Court left open the door to breach of contract actions in the educational setting when it stated "if the contract with the school were to provide for certain specified services, such as for example, a designated number of hours of instruction, and the school failed to meet its obligation, then a contract action with appropriate consequential damages might be viable" (Id at 92). It is established that the contractual relation between student and university is defined by the catalogues, bulletins and other written materials provided a student (Prusack v State New York, 117 AD2d 729, Andre v Pace University, 170 Misc 2d 893).

Claimant has attempted to circumvent the strong proscription against "educational malpractice" actions by pleading his claim as a breach of express and implied contracts with the Claimant (Claim, ¶¶ 14- 20), and by asserting in response to the summary judgment motion that he has "based his claim for relief on various oral and written promises made to him...in the nature of discreet services that were to be provided...." (Hoffmann Affidavit, ¶ 5; Baldridge

Affidavit
, ¶ 3).[1]

Claimant's breach of contract claim is premised upon the failure of a Professor Red Owl to be responsive to Claimant and in failing to provide Claimant with the academic advice and guidance to which Claimant believes he was entitled. Specifically, Claimant avers that he was denied "an on-campus primary academic advisor" and was denied the following services:
to academically prepare the Claimant, review the Claimant's reading
text and make suggestions, to meet with the Claimant on at least a monthly

basis, to engage in consultations with other committee members and potential

examiners...and to prepare two written exam questions one each in two categories

(Claim, ¶ 18)


Claimant points to the Doctoral Program Manual, Department of Public Administration and Policy, Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, State University of New York at Albany, 1989-1990 Program Manual as a source of express obligations. (Claim ¶ 10) Defendant's failure to remedy Red Owl's failures resulted in Claimant being academically unprepared leading, ultimately, to his dismissal from the degree program.

The Court finds that Defendant's submissions were sufficient to shift the burden to the Claimant of showing that defendant breached a promise, either express or implied. Defendant proffered the Doctoral Program Manual for 1990-1991 (Riccucci Affidavit, Exhibit A) and Claimant maintains, in response, that the Doctoral Program Manual for 1989-1990 (Baldridge Affidavit Exhibit A)[2] is the controlling contractual document and points to a number of provisions as setting forth the requirement that a Student have a faculty advisor. (Baldridge Affidavit ¶ 4). The Court has carefully reviewed each Doctoral Program Manual and finds the language quoted by Claimant in the 1989-1990 Doctoral Program Manual as a source of right is contained verbatim in the1990-1991 version. The only contractual obligation the Court finds existent in the cited portion is for the student to have an advisor. There is neither a requirement for an "on campus academic advisor", nor a requirement for the specific services Claimant asserts, such as monthly meetings, examination preparation, or question preparation, existing in that document for a pre-dissertation student (see, Benson v Trustees of Columbia University, 215 AD2d 255). Regardless of whether Claimant's advisor was Ms. Riccucci commencing in June, 1996 in the place of Red Owl (Riccucci Affidavit, Exhibit E; Baldridge Affidavit ¶ 18, Claim ¶9) or Red Owl, the Defendant has established to the Court's satisfaction that it discharged its obligation to Claimant; namely ensuring Claimant had an advisor.[3] Were the Court to accept Claimant's assertions as to the role of his advisor, the Court would be endorsing an individual tutor for Claimant, a service found nowhere in this record. Moreover, it would necessarily plunge the Court into determining the wisdom and propriety of the arrangement chosen to assist Claimant in his academic pursuit. This the Court can not do (Ansari v New York University, 1997 WL 257473 [SDNY]; Sirohi v Lee, 222 AD2d 222, [claims dismissed as an attempt to circumvent principle that there is no cognizable tort for educational malpractice]).

After conceding "the manual does not spell out every service the advisor is to perform" (Baldridge Affidavit, 12/28/00, ¶ 5), Claimant asserts that certain of the promises were oral representations made by Red Owl and others and memorialized in correspondence. (Baldridge Affidavit, 12/28/00, ¶ 9 ). The Court's review of the correspondence Claimant avers supports his contentions, simply does not. Rather, the correspondence initially shows an attempt to accommodate Claimant's desire to continue to work with Red Owl, while also expressing concern over the efficacy of that arrangement. Here, Claimant seeks to hold the University liable for a breach of contract based upon representations regarding the services to be provided personally to Claimant by an advisor which services, the Court has found, are not set forth in the Program Manual. Assuming, arguendo, such representations were made, they cannot form the basis for a breach of contract action against the University. To do so, in this Court's opinion, would invite the creation of a multitude of individual contracts, the terms of which are beyond the control of the school's administration (see, Olsson v Board of Higher Education of the City of New York, 49 NY2d 408, 413 [Court declines to apply "hornbook rules" where the principal is an educational institution]; compare, Ansari, supra, [correspondence to prospective students may form basis for contract] ). The remainder of Claimant's allegations, such as " failing to provide academic guidance" and "failing to be responsive to Respondent's [sic] academic needs" (Claim, ¶ 18) are vague, general statements which likewise do not support a cause of action (see, Ansari, supra) Stripped to its core, Claimant's argument challenges the efficacy of an educational arrangement he promoted. (Paladino supra, 89 AD2d at 89-90, [where the court is asked to evaluate the course of instruction or review the soundness of the method of teaching, the claim will be dismissed]).

Furthermore, the essence of the implied contract action is that if the student complies with the terms prescribed by the institution, he will obtain the degree sought and that the institution will act in good faith in its dealings with the students (Olsson v Board of Higher Education of the City of New York, 49 NY2d 408, 414; Ward v New York University, 2000 WL 1448641 [S.D.N.Y.]). Contrary to Claimant's averments set forth in his thirty (30) page affidavit dated December 28, 2000, there is no basis to find that a question of fact exists regarding the University's good faith or the requirements of the degree program. As noted earlier, the University attempted to work with the Claimant[4], and, at no time was Claimant led to believe that either the degree requirements had changed from that as set forth in the University's published material or that what was expected of him had changed (compare, Clarke v. Trustees of Columbia University of City of New York, 1996 WL 609271 S.D.N.Y., [plaintiff alleged her application for readmission failed because the requirements were changed at the "eleventh hour"]; Healy v. Larsson, 67 Misc.2d 374 aff'd 42 AD2d 1051, [petitioner took all courses directed then denied degree when officials asserted he did not take proper credits]). Accordingly, there is no question that the University fulfilled its obligation to act in good faith.

In the final analysis, this Court finds that this claim addresses the methodology employed in administering the degree program for Claimant. As such, this is an educational malpractice claim, which is not a viable cause of action in New York State.

By cross motion, Claimant seeks to amend the claim by adding claims sounding in estoppel and breach of fiduciary duty. Neither promissory estoppel, nor equitable estoppel is available in the circumstances presented by Claimant (see, Syracuse Community Health Center, Inc. v State of New York, 2001 NYSlipOp 02484, [4th Dept.][promissory estoppel]); Rosefsky by Koffman v. State of New York, 205 AD2d 120 [equitable estoppel]). The proposed amendments are a further attempt to circumvent the proscription against educational malpractice claims.

Accordingly, the Defendant's motion for summary judgment is granted and the claim is dismissed.[5] Claimant's cross-motion to amend the claim is denied.


July 3, 2001
Albany, New York

HON. RICHARD E. SISE
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1] In his Opposition papers, Claimant for the first time asserts that certain of the promises were made by faculty other than Red Owl.
[2] The parties dispute the date Claimant became a pre-dissertation doctoral candidate, a difference which is of no consequence given the identical language cited in the publications.
[3] The University's letter of July, 1997 (Baldridge Affidavit, Exhibit E) expressing concern over the Red Owl arrangement and urging Claimant to "connect with an on campus advisor" is not evidence of a breach of contract but is evidence of the University's good faith efforts, of which Claimant did not avail himself. Moreover, Claimant's correspondence to Red Owl (Baldridge Affidavit, Exhibit G) expresses the transitional nature of Red Owl's involvement and the lead role of Ms. Riccucci in advising Claimant.
[4] See, footnote 2, supra. The Court also notes Claimant did not seek an extension of the statute of limitations based upon his allegations regarding the status of his advisor. Such a determination, if unfavorable to the Claimant would have been subject to Article 78 review.
[5] Because the Court has dismissed the Claim it need not reach the question of whether the Board of Regents and State University of New York at Albany are proper parties.