Tiffany Neustaedter, former Webster University Nurse Anesthesia student, filed a lawsuit against Webster University on March 1, after Webster dismissed her from the Nurse Anesthesia program in 2010. She is suing for $100,000 total for four counts and $2 million total in punitive damages. Neustaedter’s case alleges her expulsion from the program was a result of her relationship with Garrett Bergfeld, biological sciences professor, which started in Summer 2009.
“Then, she just started being targeted in what she considers to be a toxic environment,” Andrew Kuhlman, Neustaedter’s lawyer, said.
She is also bringing the case against David Carl Wilson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Jill Stulce, nurse anesthesia program director; and Gary Clark, nurse anesthesia professor. Wilson and Stulce both said they could not comment because the case is in litigation. Clark was contacted through email but has not yet responded. Susan Kerth, interim director of public relations, said, “It is Webster’s policy not to comment on matters such as this that are in litigation.”
Neustaedter enrolled in Webster’s nurse anesthesia program in Fall 2008 after 14 years as a registered nurse (RN). Webster released Neustaedter from the program nine weeks and one credit hour before her completion, according to the lawsuit.
Kuhlmann said Neustaedter has tried to create a solution with Webster for over a year.
“She’s been continually frustrated,” Kuhlman said. “She’s paid an attorney a lot of money to work out a resolution to get back in the program, but has been similar to her previous frustrations with Webster.”
The lawsuit states in the summer of 2009, Neustaedter and Bergfeld began an, “intimate, personal relationship,” and that, “students, faculty and administrators knew of this personal relationship.”
Paragraph 18 of the lawsuit states, “Bergfeld and Stulce (Nurse Anesthesia program director) are known to have tension, conflict, and/or rivalry in their personal and/or professional relationship.” Paragraph 19 then states, “Before the relationship between Neustaedter and Bergfeld became known, Neustaedter received no warnings, discipline, or other indication of any performance deficiency.”
In the fall of 2008 and spring of 2009, before her relationship with Bergfeld, Neustaedter received a cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 3.74 with her lowest grade being a B+.
Neustaedter received her first B- in her Pharmacology III course during Summer 2009. Students are eligible for counseling with the nurse anesthesia program director after the first B-, according to the Nurse Anesthesia Handbook.
“The principle issue is that (Webster) quite simply utilized the handbook when it was useful to them but ignored it on multiple, multiple occasions,” Kuhlman said.
When a student receives two B- grades, he or she is issued a warning letter. The lawsuit states Stulce, nurse anesthesia program director, sent a warning letter to Neustaedter on August 8, 2010 after her first B- grade.
In the lawsuit, Neustaedter claims she never received counseling from Stulce. Then, in Spring 2010, Neustaedter enrolled in a clinical rotation. When the medical provider was able to evaluate Neustaedter, she, “received only satisfactory evaluations each time the medical provider instructor was available to provide evaluations,” according to the lawsuit.
Originally, she received an A grade for her Clinical. Then, Webster, according to the lawsuit, changed Neustaedter’s grade from the original A to a B-.
The lawsuit then claims the grade change was a result of Neustaedter’s inability to obtain Clinical evaluations on a daily basis. Neustaedter worked many night shifts when a medical provider was not present to evaluate her performance.
“Such a technical shortcoming is, upon information and belief, regularly and customarily permitted by Webster University,” states the lawsuit.
Then, “due to rumors and a personal conflict arising out of rumors based in part on Plaintiff’s personal relationship with Bergfeld, Plaintiff was asked to leave and required to take an ‘Incomplete’ grade for her Summer 2010 rotation.”
Clark, according to the lawsuit, issued Neustaedter a B- then, “arbitrarily and post hoc revised to a ‘C’,” for a Fall 1 class in 2010.
The suit claims Neustaedter’s damages, “include delayed income, lost tuition, expenses, attorneys’ fees to attempt to remedy the Defendants’ breaches of contract, damage to reputation, mental anguish and emotional harms.”
The four claims against the defendants are breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation and breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing. The case is in St. Louis County Circuit Court. Kuhlman said, as of March 4, Webster did not yet respond to the suit. Kuhlman said he received the information in the lawsuit through the Webster University Student Handbook, Nurse Anesthesia Handbook and Neustaedter’s copies of her examinations, grades, Self-Evaluation Examination and transcripts.
This is the second time in 10 years a student brought a lawsuit against the nurse anesthesia program. In 2008, two nurse anesthesia students sued Webster on April 16, 2008, filing the lawsuit as a, “breach of contract,” after Webster accused them of cheating on an exam. Webster then dismissed them from the program. Kimberly Sauerwein and Melinda Fehrenbach attended Webster’s nurse anesthesia program in 2006. On October 8, 2007, Sauerwein and Fehrenbach allegedly cheated on an exam, according to the lawsuit. They filed 12 counts against Webster — two sets of six identical counts. They sued for breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, fraudulent nondisclosure, violation of due process, breach of privacy and injunction. Both parties dismissed the case in 2009, according to Missouri Case Net, an online database of Missouri criminal and civil cases.
Neustaedter’s lawsuit is the fourth of the 2011-2012 academic year to be filed against Webster.