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Raethz v. Aurora University

February 27, 2004

[5] BETTY RAETHZ, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
AURORA UNIVERSITY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



[6] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 00-MRK-176 Honorable Patrick J. Dixon, Judge, Presiding.

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Byrne

[8]  Plaintiff, Betty Raethz, a student, filed a four-count complaint against defendant, Aurora University, for damages based on her allegedly wrongful expulsion from the school's master's in social work program. The trial court granted the University summary judgment as to count IV and, following a bench trial, found for the University as to counts I and III. As to count II, the only count at issue on appeal, the trial court held that the University breached an agreement created by the University's School of Social Work Handbook (Handbook) and the Field Instruction Manual, and granted judgment to plaintiff for $31,469. We reverse because the trial court misapplied the law, which required a finding that the dismissal was based on arbitrary, capricious, or bad-faith conduct.

[9]  Plaintiff enrolled in the program in the fall quarter of 1997. According to the Handbook, a student must successfully complete 60 credits to receive a master's degree; 18 credits must be earned through successful completion of field instruction. While field instructors complete evaluations based on a student's performance at an agency, the University is ultimately responsible for assigning a grade for field work. Under the terms of the Handbook, "[t]wo consecutive terms of below standard work resulting in a 'no credit' grade in Field Instruction is cause for dismissal from the MSW Program."

[10]   Plaintiff chose three field work assignments. For her first assignment, plaintiff worked at the Hospice of Northeastern Illinois. Plaintiff received credit for this field instruction work. Next, she chose Northwest Action Against Rape (NWAAR). Ultimately, plaintiff's supervisors could not recommend that plaintiff receive a passing grade for her field work at NWAAR. However, she was not given a failing grade; instead she was given a deferred grade, an "X," which according to the Handbook is to be used when a course is not completed. Plaintiff chose to do her third field work assignment at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital. That assignment also did not fare well. On January 26, 1999, Alexian Brothers decided to terminate plaintiff's placement due to her performance, and she received "No Credit" for her field work.

[11]   Because plaintiff received no credit for her fall 1998 field work assignment at Alexian Brothers, she was given a letter grade of "F" by the University for that class. Because she failed to fulfill the requirements of a remediation plan and a learning agreement, which were developed after her assignment at NWAAR, she was not given retroactive credit for her work at NWAAR. Accordingly, pursuant to the Handbook, because plaintiff had earned no credit for two consecutive terms of field instruction, she was subject to dismissal from the program.

[12]   Pursuant to the Handbook, a review committee, consisting of faculty from the University, convened at the University to review plaintiff's situation. The committee reviewed the written evaluations of plaintiff's performance at NWAAR and Alexian Brothers, as well as a 12-page written account prepared by plaintiff. In addition, plaintiff appeared before the committee and presented her case. The committee determined that plaintiff should be dismissed from the program. A letter to that effect was sent to plaintiff on March 3, 1999.

[13]   In accordance with the Handbook, plaintiff appealed the decision of the student review committee to Dean Sandra Alcorn. Dean Alcorn reviewed materials prepared by plaintiff. In her submission to Dean Alcorn, plaintiff added four new pages to the materials that she had provided to the review committee. Dean Alcorn then met with plaintiff. After considering plaintiff's appeal, she found that plaintiff had not been subjected to capricious grading in her field work assignments and that there was no reason to change her grades or reverse the decision of the review committee. Dean Alcorn upheld the decision of the review committee and informed plaintiff of her decision by letter. Although entitled, plaintiff did not appeal Dean Alcorn's decision.

[14]   At trial, plaintiff testified that she received the Field Instruction Manual and the Handbook when she started classes at the University and was familiar with the contents. In particular, section X of the Field Instruction Manual provides that, when a field instructor assesses a student's performance as unsatisfactory, a joint conference with the faculty liaison, the field instructor, and the student should be held to develop a written "follow-up" plan to address the unsatisfactory performance. Field instructors should document all verbal warnings and must notify the student and the faculty field liaison in writing if the student's performance is not improving sufficiently to warrant a "PASS" grade within sufficient time so that the student can respond to and have the opportunity to correct any deficiencies in her performance. Section XX states that the University provides a faculty advisor to explain the University's policies to the field instructors, maintain close contact with the field instructors, review all evaluations submitted by the field instructors, and keep the academic advisors advised of a student's problems.

[15]   Plaintiff testified that in October 1998, she complained to Dr. Fred McKenzie, her faculty liaison, about the inadequate supervision and instruction she received from her supervisors at Alexian Brothers. At Dr. McKenzie's suggestion, she told her supervisors at Alexian Brothers several times that she needed more supervision. Plaintiff stated that no one complained about her performance or warned her that she was in danger of failing.

[16]   Dr. Susan Ross, the field placement coordinator, testified that section X of the Field Instruction Manual was in full force and effect while plaintiff attended the University. She admitted that she had never seen any proof or documentation of section X compliance at either of plaintiff's field placements. Dr. Ross further admitted that she never saw a written remediation plan for the Alexian Brothers field placement.

[17]   The trial court found that the University and plaintiff entered into an implied agreement whereby the University agreed to deliver, among other things, a degree in social work if plaintiff achieved satisfactory grades. The trial court further found that plaintiff did not achieve the requisite satisfactory grades due to her failure to successfully complete the field instruction component of the curriculum and that the court was "not authorized to intervene in the defendant's grading function absent a finding of bad faith which, beyond mere suspicion, the evidence adduced does not support." This statement suggests that the trial court found that the University did not act in bad faith. In any event, the trial court did not find expressly whether the University's faculty or agents acted arbitrarily, capriciously, or in bad faith in dismissing plaintiff from the program.

[18]   The trial court further found that section XX of the Field Instruction Manual imposed other requirements that the University did not perform. In particular, the trial court noted that the evidence showed that the University failed to provide the following services in a meaningful way so as to permit plaintiff the opportunity to successfully complete the field instruction portion of the curriculum: provide a faculty advisor to explain the University's policies to the field instructors; maintain close contact with the field instructors; review all evaluations submitted by the field instructors; and keep the academic advisors advised of plaintiff's problems.

[19]   Additionally, the trial court found that the evidence showed that the University substantially failed to fulfill the requirements of section X of the Field Instruction Manual by failing to hold a joint conference with the faculty liaison, the field instructor, and plaintiff to develop the written remediation plan so that plaintiff could respond to and have the opportunity to correct any deficiencies in her performance. The court also noted that there was no evidence of a written remediation plan. Accordingly, the trial court held that the University breached the agreement and granted judgment in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $31,469, the full refund of her tuition. Plaintiff did not seek reinstatement. The University timely appeals.

[20]   The University contends that the trial court applied the wrong standard of law to plaintiff's breach of contract claim against the University for dismissing plaintiff. We agree. On appeal, the parties do not dispute the factual findings, only the application of the law to the facts. The question of whether the trial court applied the wrong legal standard is one of law, which we ...


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