September 16, 2014

TIMELINE: Judge rules in favor of Webster in Neustaedter case

Unwilling to intervene in educational processes, Circuit Judge Kristine Allen Kerr ruled against a former nursing anesthesia student in her lawsuit against Webster University in May. That former student, Tiffany Ann Neustaedter, appealed the ruling in June to the Eastern District Court of Appeals in Missouri.

Neustaedter sued the university and three of its employees in March 2012 on six counts for $100,000 and punitive damages totaling $2 million. Those six counts were breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing and the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.

Neustaedter was nine weeks and one credit hour from completion of the degree program when the university dismissed her, according to the lawsuit. She started the program in 2008. At the time, she had been a registered nurse for 14 years.

In her judgement, Kerr said Neustaedter’s allegations fell under the designation of “educational malpractice” claims, which are not viable in Missouri courts.

Neustaedter’s claims would have allowed the court to inquire about “the nuances of educational processes and theories,” which “courts are prohibited from examining.”

Kerr referenced language from another case, Alsides v. Brown Inst., Ltd., in her judgement.

Text from that case reads, “Any intervention by the court would amount to judicial supervision of a university’s internal procedures for monitoring its faculty . . . In refusing to recognize a claim for educational malpractice, this court emphasized that it is not our place to micromanage a university’s daily operations.”

Click to view Judge Kerr’s judgment, Neustaedter’s appeal, and the depositions of Program Director Jill Stulce and Dean David Carl Wilson. 

Kerr’s order was sparked by a motion from Webster for a summary judgment. A summary judgment is used by one party to promptly end a case without having it go to trial.

Webster asked Kerr to assess the evidence and rule on all six of Neustaedter’s claims. However, the university did not raise the “educational malpractice” defense in its motion.

This is the basis for Neustaedter’s appeal. She argues that because Webster did not raise the “educational malpractice” defense, she did have to argue against the concept. But because Kerr reached that conclusion in her judgement, Neustaedter alleges she was denied the chance to explain why some or all of her allegations were not “educational malpractice” claims.

Neustaedter argues that “the granting of summary judgement on the non-argued basis is so arbitrary and unreasonable that it denies Plaintiff due process of law.” Neustadter claims that the summary judgment violated her Seventh and Fourteenth Amendment rights (right to a trial by jury, equal protection under the law, respectively), as well as rights protected under the Missouri Constitution.

Dispute about remediation status

If Neustaedter’s appeal is allowed to stand, her case will hinge on the allegation that Webster did not follow its own policies and procedures when it offered remediation to her. In the original lawsuit, this claim led to an argument between the university and Neustaedter about the nature of the handbook as a legal contract.

In the summer session of 2010, Neustaedter performed her rural clinical rotation at Phelps County Regional Medical Center (PCRMC) in Rolla, MO. However, Webster alleges, Neustaedter was asked to leave the rotation by PCRMC personnel at the end of fourth week.

Jill Stulce, program director and one of the employees named in the lawsuit, claims a supervising PCRMC coordinator said Neustaedter had a “consistent lack of demonstration of skills and knowledge.” This professional gave Neustaedter one week to recover. When she did not, Neustaedter was asked to leave, Stulce alleges.

On July 9, 2010, Neustaedter met with five members of the nurse program faculty. Typically, when a student is dismissed from a clinical site, they automatically fail the course and the program. Webster claims, rather than dismissing Neustaedter from the program, it afforded Neustaedter a remediation clinical rotation opportunity. Neustaedter said these claims rely on hearsay statements.

That fall, Neustaedter participated in a clinical rotation at SSM DePaul Hospital in St. Louis County. Webster contends this was a remediation clinical rotation opportunity. Webster alleges because Neustaedter could not successfully complete her remediation rotation at DePaul, her incomplete grade from PCRMC was changed to an “F.” This “F” led her to be dismissed from the program, Webster claims.

However, Neustaedter alleges Webster failed to alert her about her remediation rotation “in writing.” The handbook from the nurse anesthesia program stipulates that students should be informed about remediation and other restricted statuses “verbally and in writing.”

“Because the conditions for remediation (i.e., proper notification of restricted status) hadnot occurred, Plaintiff was not on remediation during the Fall 2010 DePaul rotation,” case documents read.

Consequently, any termination decision based on this remediation process was without merit, Neustaedter claims.

This issue led to an argument between Webster and Neustaedter about the nature of the Nurse Anesthesia Program Handbook. Neustaedter claims the handbook acted as the language of a contract between her and the university. She also relies on statements made by Wilson in his deposition. When asked if students can reasonably expect the policies of the Nurse Anesthesia Program Handbook to be followed by Webster, Wilson answered in the affirmative.

However, Webster contends the purpose of the handbook is “to clarify the policies and procedures to the Nurse Program.” Furthermore, the university argues, there is no language or terminology in the handbook stating that it is a contract or agreement between the university and its students.

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