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Clements v. County of Nassau

decided: December 23, 1987.

HELEN CLEMENTS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
THE COUNTY OF NASSAU, NASSAU COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE, SEAN A. FANELLI, ALBERT E. DONOR, JR., JOHN Q. ADAMS, JR., ANNE CHRISTIAN, PHYLLIS PELIKAN, ANITA MADDEN, ALMA E. HARR, AND DOROTHY COOKE, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from a grant of summary judgment entered by Korman, J., of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Appellant's civil rights complaint, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1982), asserted that appellee's bad faith grading and evaluation of her clinical performance as a nursing student resulted in her inability to graduate. Affirmed.

Kaufman, Miner, and Davis,*fn* Circuit Judges.

Author: Kaufman

KAUFMAN, Circuit Judge:

Allegations of improper conduct levelled against teachers in our university systems call into play fundamental questions of fairness. At times, however, they threaten to strike at the heart of institutions of higher learning. As Robert Maynard Hutchins once cautioned, "Freedom of inquiry, freedom of discussion, and freedom of teaching -- without these a university cannot exist." This is particularly true where the charges are aimed at the core of a teacher's authority, the student's grade. In such cases of academic dismissals, summary judgment, when properly employed, can serve the laudable function of protecting our crucibles of knowledge from the vagaries of the judicial system.

Helen Clements appeals from a grant of summary judgment issued by Judge Edward R. Korman of the Eastern District of New York on June 11, 1987. Her civil rights complaint, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1982), asserted that appellees' bad faith grading and evaluation of her clinical performance as a nursing student resulted in her inability to graduate. The gravamen to her complaint is that the defendants, motivated by personal animus and ill will, rather than legitimate assessment of Clements's academic performance, acted in concert to force her out of the Nassau County Community College (hereafter "College") nursing program.

Clements's first cause of action alleged civil rights violations by the individual appellees for denial of due process and equal protection. Her second claim alleged that appellees Nassau County and the College violated her rights by authorizing or sanctioning the acts of the individual appellees by failing to promulgate rules and regulations to prevent such occurrences. Her third, fourth, fifth and sixth claims raised tort and contract issues. Clements's saga began in the spring of 1981 when, at the age of 51, she enrolled in the College's nursing program. This was not her first exposure to the health care field. From 1950 to 1955, she worked at various hospitals as a laboratory technician. Appellant left her last position to raise a family. Thereafter, she became active in health-related community organizations, particularly those devoted to screening risk groups for hypertension.

The College's two-year nursing program includes four semesters. Course grades are based on written tests and clinical evaluations. Unsatisfactory completion of either component results in failing. From the first day, students are taught certain "over-riding" guidelines which apply to all aspects of patient-care. These include protection of the patient from emotional and physical jeopardy and maintenance of cleanliness at all times.

Clements's first year proceeded smoothly, although not without incident. As one of her first-year instructors, Nancy Latterner, explained, "her past experiences caused her to think she knew more than she actually did." At times, this "know-it-all" attitude prevented her from accurately assessing a patient problem.

According to Clements, however, her awareness of health care issues caused "the instructor [to] resent . . . [her] from the beginning." Specifically, she points to a class presentation by a nurse she had worked with on the Nassau County Hypertension Coordinating Council. The nurse apparently ended her presentation on blood-pressure screening by suggesting that interested students also speak to Clements.

Clements received good grades her first year. In addition, she apparently held her first-year teachers in positive regard. As late as February 1983, she wrote a letter to the College paper, The Vignette, defending one of them from charges of nepotism.

Clements's first serious problem arose in the fall of 1982, her second year, when she contaminated the newborn nursery. She was advised of her error and acknowledged it. Although the instructor could have failed her, she was allowed to continue the course. Then, in December 1982, Clements twice failed an evaluation of her clinical skills by instructor Norma Ercolano -- again because she did not maintain cleanliness. By failing the clinical procedure, she automatically earned an "F" for the entire course.

Clements appealed her grade to Health Sciences Dean Dolores Saxton. Contrary to departmental policy which allows only two chances, Dean Saxton arranged a third opportunity for Clements to pass. A different instructor evaluated her performance. In addition to the test previously given, she was required to complete another clinical procedure. This time, Clements received a "B" for the course.

Appellant commenced the final course in the spring of 1983. Several days into the course, she failed to maintain cleanliness in preparing a sterile dressing. More importantly, she did not realize she had done so and thus did not correct her error. Professor L. T. Prussack noted in her "anecdotal record," a log kept by the teachers to track student performance, that appellant "displays a lack of understanding of aseptic technique." She was allowed to withdraw from the course with a "W" grade representing her withdrawal, instead of receiving a failing mark.

Clements did not contest the merits of this judgment. Rather, she disputed her instructor's recommendation that she take time off to hone her clinical skills and wait until the spring of 1984 to retake the course. Appellant appealed to Dean Saxton, who refused to intercede again on her behalf. The Dean told Clements that she had reviewed her file and noted "too many little things." Dean ...


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