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Jeanine Seitz-Partridge v. Loyola University of Chicago

March 31, 2011


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 03 L12349 Honorable Allen S. Goldberg and Daniel J. Pierce,Judges Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Cunningham

PRESIDING JUSTICE CUNNINGHAM delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Karnezis and Harris concurred in the judgment and opinion.


The plaintiff, Jeanine Seitz-Partridge, initiated this lawsuit in 2003 in the circuit court of Cook County seeking injunctive relief and damages against the defendant, Loyola University of Chicago*fn1 (Loyola) and individual faculty members of the school. The plaintiff alleged she was wrongfully denied advancement into Loyola's molecular biology Ph.D. program. In February 2006, the trial court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss counts III and IV of the plaintiff's complaint pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (the Code). 735 ILCS 2-615 (West 2004) (section 2-615). Count III alleged tortious interference by the individual defendants with the contract between the plaintiff and Loyola; and count IV alleged defamation per se against the plaintiff by the individual defendants. At that time, the trial court also granted the defendants' motion to strike the plaintiff's request for injunctive relief. The dismissal of those two counts, as well as the denial of injunctive relief, remained in effect for the duration of the pendency of the case.

On December 8, 2009, the trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants on the following: count I which alleged breach of an express contract between the plaintiff and Loyola; count II which alleged breach of an implied contract between the plaintiff and Loyola; and count V which alleged defamation per quod by the individual defendants. The trial court denied, as moot, the plaintiff's motion to reconsider the trial court's order dismissing her request for injunctive relief. The court further denied the plaintiff's motion for leave to file a sixth amended complaint. This action disposed of the plaintiff's case in its entirety. On December 21, 2009, the plaintiff filed a timely appeal of the December 8, 2009, order and all prior orders striking or dismissing all counts of her fifth amended complaint. Ill. S. Ct. R. 303(a)(1) (eff. May 30, 2008).

On appeal, the plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) whether the trial court improperly granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the action for breach of contract; (2) whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying leave to file a sixth amended complaint; (3) whether the trial court improperly denied the motion to reconsider its dismissal of the request for injunctive relief; and (4) whether the trial court erred in dismissing the count which alleged defamation per se.

For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part, reverse in part and remand, the case to the circuit court of Cook County.


The record contains the following facts and allegations. The plaintiff enrolled in Loyola's highly selective molecular biology program in July 2000. She was awarded a graduate tuition fellowship and a position as a graduate assistant for which she was paid a stipend. The graduate assistant position was part of a class entitled "Thesis Research." The plaintiff was a member of Dr. Alan Wolfe's research staff, and Wolfe was her mentor and advisor in the program.

In order to continue in the program as a Ph.D. candidate, the plaintiff needed to pass a preliminary examination by the end of her second year in the program. This examination required the plaintiff to write a grant proposal and present an oral defense of her proposal to a committee made up of the defendants Drs. Wolfe, Adam Driks, David Keating, Gayatri Vedantam and the committee chair, Allen Frankfater (known collectively as the Preliminary Examination Committee, or PEC). According to Loyola's written guidelines for the program, a student should take a course entitled "Research Ethics" by the end of the student's second spring semester. Relying on Wolfe's advice, the plaintiff deferred taking this class and had not taken it prior to her work on her grant proposal.

On or about May 28, 2002, the plaintiff was given a topic for her preliminary examination by the PEC. She prepared an abstract and specific aims of her grant proposal which the PEC approved on July 18, 2002. The plaintiff submitted her written grant proposal in August 2002 and gave her oral defense of the proposal on September 9, 2002. At the conclusion of the oral defense, the members of the PEC privately deliberated. Professor Frankfater then verbally told the plaintiff, in the presence of the full PEC, that she passed the oral examination; that she passed the first part, or "Aim 1" of her written examination; and that she conditionally passed "Aim 2" but she needed to revise that part of the proposal. The plaintiff alleged that, contrary to the requirements in Loyola's guidelines, she never received a written evaluation of her grant proposal at the time of her oral defense, nor a written summary of the PEC's meeting held after her oral defense.

The plaintiff subsequently revised the "Aim 2" section of her grant proposal with Wolfe's aid, and submitted it to the PEC. Wolfe's later deposition statements indicated that four out of the five PEC members told him verbally that they would vote affirmatively to pass the plaintiff. Before the vote to pass the plaintiff was official, Professor Vedantam, a member of the PEC, accused the plaintiff of plagiarism, and the other members of the PEC reversed their opinions about passing the plaintiff. A written critique of the plaintiff's preliminary examination was prepared by the PEC and given to the program's steering committee in charge of student discipline. The PEC did not determine whether the plaintiff's plagiarism conduct was intentional.

In her complaint filed in the circuit court of Cook County, the plaintiff alleged that the PEC's critique contained fabricated statements which misled the steering committee into believing that the plaintiff's work was sub-par and that she would have failed her preliminary examination even without the plagiarism charge. The plaintiff alleged that the reason the PEC sent the critique to the steering committee was to make a permanent record of the allegations of plagiarism. The steering committee had the authority to overrule the PEC and could have given the plaintiff a passing grade, or directed that she re-write the portions of her work that were allegedly plagiarized.

However, the steering committee agreed with the PEC that the plaintiff had committed plagiarism according to Loyola's definition. No determination was made by the steering committee as to whether the plaintiff plagiarized with the intent to deceive. The steering committee also agreed with the PEC's conclusion that because of the plagiarism, it was impossible to determine whether the plaintiff understood the material.

It was explained to the plaintiff that according to the guidelines of the program, she had the opportunity to take a second preliminary examination on a different question to determine her eligibility to continue in the Ph.D. program. If she failed the second examination, she would be dismissed from the Ph.D. program. The plaintiff then took a second preliminary examination. After review, the PEC determined that plaintiff failed both the written and the oral portions of her second preliminary examination. The members of the PEC sent their individual critiques of the plaintiff's examination to the steering committee. The steering committee independently reviewed the materials and unanimously agreed with the conclusions of the PEC. The associate dean of the graduate school reviewed the steering committee's recommendation and conducted his own independent review. On March 27, 2003, the associate dean informed the plaintiff that she was dismissed from the Ph.D. program. The plaintiff does not allege any wrongful conduct on the part of the defendants regarding the results of her second failed preliminary examination.

The plaintiff appealed to the school's hearing board pursuant to Loyola's academic grievance procedure. The hearing board consisted of two Loyola professors and one Loyola Ph.D. student whom the plaintiff did not know. The board heard testimony from the plaintiff and several of the professors involved in the plaintiff's review. On May 28, 2003, the board upheld the decision to dismiss the plaintiff from the program.

The plaintiff appealed the hearing board's decision to the associate vice president for research, who was also the dean of the graduate school. The plaintiff submitted documents prepared with the aid of her legal counsel. The dean confirmed the hearing board's decision. The plaintiff then pursued the third level of review conducted by Loyola's vice president for health services. Again, she submitted documents prepared by her legal ...

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