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Scaccia v. Stamp

March 31, 2010

BRIAN SCACCIA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DR. NANCY STAMP, DR. ROBERT VAN BUSKIRK, DR. DAVID E. MURRISH, DR. SUSAN STREHLE, DR. MARY ANN SWAIN, DR. STEPHEN J. GILJE, DR. SANDRA MICHAEL, DR. J. STANLEY WHITTINGHAM, DR. MATTHEW DILLON, DR. R. STIMSON WILCOX, AND LAURA WEISER, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Norman A. Mordue, Chief U.S. District Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION and ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff commenced the present action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in 1998. Defendants were or are professors, students or administrators of the Department of Biology at the State University of New York at Binghamton where plaintiff was enrolled as a graduate student during the relevant period of this litigation. Due to protracted discovery disputes between he and defense counsel, the entry and exit of several lawyers on both sides and plaintiff's pursuit of a number of appeals of minor procedural matters, this case has endured untenable delays. In 2001, Judge McAvoy dismissed all but two of the claims in plaintiff's complaint. There are only two claims remaining for this Court to review. Presently pending is defendants' motion for summary judgment dismissing the remainder of plaintiff's claims pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. Plaintiff opposes defendants' motion.

II. RELEVANT FACTS

The facts that the parties agree on are as follows: In 1993, plaintiff was admitted as a student to the Graduate School of SUNY Binghamton to study for the Master of Arts ("M.A.") degree in the Biology. Plaintiff had been admitted to SUNY Binghamton with a Bachelor of Science ("B.S.") degree. Plaintiff was offered a Graduate Teaching Assistantship, which carried a stipend of $9,100, and a tuition scholarship for the Fall 1993 and Spring 1994 semesters. Plaintiff disputes virtually everything else in defendants' 7.1 Statement of Material Facts, so the Court will begin with defendants' version of the facts.

When initially accepted to SUNY Binghamton, plaintiff was provided with a copy of the University Assistantship, Fellowship and Tuition Scholarship Terms and Conditions Statement for 1993-1994 (the "Terms and Conditions Statement"). Among other things, the 1993-94 Terms and Condition Statement provided that "Graduate students with Tuition Scholarship support are required to maintain the appropriate level of registration as defined for their level. Registrations and fee payments must be completed before the first day of classes." The 1993-94 Terms and Condition Statement further provided that:

[a]ll assistantship and fellowships are renewed on a competitive basis and are granted for a maximum of two semesters at a time. Eligibility for University funding is limited as follows:

A. Master's candidates may be supported by University funds for a maximum of four semesters.

B. Ph.D. candidates who enter our program with a Master's Degree are eligible for 6 semesters of University Support.

C. Other Ph.D. candidates may be supported by University funds for a maximum of ten semesters.

Plaintiff also was provided with a copy of the SUNY Binghamton Biology Department's Graduate Student Handbook (the "Department Handbook"). The Department Handbook made clear that "[b]ecause the ability of the Department to provide support for graduate students is limited, there are limits on both the number of semesters a student is eligible for support and also on the number of credit hours a student may take with a tuition waiver." Much like the Terms and Conditions Statement, the Department Handbook also stated that "[a] Masters of Arts student is normally eligible for 4 semesters of support, and "graduate students in the Ph. D. Program are initially eligible for 6 semesters of support." The Department Handbook also set forth the Biology Department's expectations with respect to students seeking the Doctor of Philosophy ("Ph.D."): "[t]he Ph.D. is a research degree. Entering graduate students are expected to affiliate with a Supervising Professor and establish a research program in the first year. The student's progress is monitored by a Supervising Committee." The formal steps leading to the degree were listed as follows:

1. Affiliate with a Supervising Professor by the fourth week of the second semester after entry into the program.

2. Establish a Supervising Committee in the second semester.

3. Take a Qualifying Examination by the end of the second semester.

4. Have at least one formal meeting with Supervising Committee each year to discuss research.

5. Take the Comprehensive Examinations. Students entering the program with a BA or BS must complete all exams by the end of the sixth semester. Students entering with a M.A. Degree have until the end of the fifth semester to complete exams.

6. Submit a Dissertation Prospectus within three months after completion of the Comprehensive Exams.

7. During the last semester in residence students must:

a. Declare candidacy for the degree.

b. Request an outside thesis examiner.

c. Submit the thesis.

d. Give a departmental seminar.

e. Take the final oral thesis defense.

The Department Handbook expressly cautioned that "[i]t is the responsibility of the student and supervising professor to know the rules and procedures leading to completion of the requirements for the degree."

The Biology Department's expectations with respect to students seeking the Ph.D. were consistent with those set forth in SUNY Binghamton's general Graduate School Student Handbook (the "Graduate School Handbook"). Among other things, the Graduate School Handbook stated in unequivocal and unambiguous terms that a student seeking a Ph.D. must: (a) "demonstrat[e] to an examination committee, by means of a comprehensive examination (written and/or oral) of familiarity with basic hypotheses and techniques of the discipline and competence of applying them;" (b) fulfill "any research skills requirements;" and (c) successfully "defend a doctoral dissertation at a final oral examination." The Graduate Handbook also made clear that:

[g]raduate students may be dropped from the Graduate School by action of the vice provost, on recommendation of the departmental or school graduate committee, if it appears that they are not making satisfactory progress toward the degree and it is unlikely that they will satisfactorily complete the requirements for a degree.

All students admitted into the Biology Department's graduate program with a B.A. or B.S. are admitted as M.A. students. While a graduate student may be on a "Ph.D. track" during his first years of enrollment in the graduate school, the student remains a M.A. student until formally admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. by the student's Supervising Committee. A M.A. student can be admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. only after (a) successfully completing comprehensive examinations, (b) submitting a proper Dissertation Prospectus to the student's Supervising Committee, and (c) gaining the Supervising Committee's approval of the Dissertation Prospectus. A "declaration of candidacy" for the award of the degree is made for the purpose of notifying the Graduate School that the student intends to defend the dissertation. A "declaration of candidacy" for the award of the Ph.D. must be made by the student during his final term in residency at the University. After a graduate student who officially is a Ph.D. candidate declares him or herself ready to defend the dissertation, the student must request and obtain an outside thesis examiner (if not already done), submit a doctoral dissertation, give a departmental seminar, and orally defend his or her dissertation -- all before being awarded the doctoral degree.

A graduate student need not always be advanced to Ph.D. candidacy by the Supervising Committee. A student may elect not to proceed with the steps required for admission to Ph.D. candidacy by the Biology Department. Even if admitted to Ph.D. candidacy, a student may elect not to proceed with dissertation completion and instead graduate from SUNY Binghamton with a M.A. (assuming that the student has fulfilled the M.A. requirements). Graduate students who initially consider themselves on the "Ph.D. track" frequently elect not to pursue a doctoral degree at some point during the process for any number of reasons. All graduate students entering with a B.A. or B.S. into the graduate program of SUNY Binghamton's Biology Department are admitted as M.A. students and become Ph.D. candidates only after completing comprehensive examinations, submitting and gaining approval of a dissertation prospectus, and then being formally admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. To become a Ph.D. candidate, a graduate student must make substantial progress towards the degree and complete specified tasks as outlined in the Department and Graduate School Handbooks.

According to defendants' Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute, plaintiff was admitted to SUNY Binghamton's Graduate School "to study for the Master of Arts degree." Plaintiff enrolled for classes at SUNY Binghamton during the Fall 1993 and Spring 1994 semesters. Plaintiff was provided with financial support for the Fall 1993 and Spring 1994 semesters. Plaintiff was awarded a teaching assistant position through the1994-95 and 1995-96 academic years. Plaintiff resigned from this teaching position for the Spring 1995 semester. During the ensuing three years (or six academic semesters), while plaintiff was on the so-called "Ph.D. track," he did not make significant progress toward his degree. For instance, by the end of the second semester, plaintiff failed to finalize a preliminary research proposal, schedule a meeting with his proposed supervising committee, or take his qualifying examination as required by the Biology Department Handbook. Finally, on June 10, 1994, several weeks after the end of his second semester, plaintiff belatedly requested that a supervising committee be formed. He then completed his qualifying examination on June 14, 1994, weeks after the semester had come to a close. During plaintiff's qualifying examination, his supervising committee determined that he would take two comprehensive examinations sequentially, in approximately March and December 1995. Thus, the supervising committee anticipated that plaintiff would complete his comprehensive examination requirement by the end of his fifth semester at SUNY Binghamton.

By the beginning of his fourth semester at SUNY Binghamton, defendants assert that plaintiff still had not begun his comprehensive examinations. On February 3, 1995, the Biology Department's Graduate Committee sent plaintiff a memorandum which cautioned him that "[Ph.D.] students entering the program with a [B.A. or B.S.] must complete all exams by the end of the Fifth Semester." The memorandum also reminded plaintiff that he already had received three semesters of support and tuition assistance, and M.A. students are eligible for only four semesters of support. On March 21, 1995, halfway into his fourth semester at SUNY Binghamton, plaintiff was warned by defendant Stamp, his supervising professor, that she soon would be asked to evaluate his progress towards the degree, and was in the "awkward position of not being able to give a positive report" because (a) she had not received any written report from plaintiff since his last committee meeting in June 1994; (b) he had neither planned nor participated a committee meeting that was required to take place by March 31, 1995, and (c) he had neither begun nor planned to begin his comprehensive examinations. Despite defendant Stamp's explicit warning, two more weeks passed and plaintiff neither planned for nor began his comprehensive examinations.

In an evaluation prepared on April 6, 1995, defendant Stamp wrote that plaintiff "[d]oesn't plan well -- which makes it difficult to conduct research well." Regarding his performance, she wrote in her April 6, 1995 evaluation: "High intellectual ability, high motivation, writes well. Have not seen a written report of last summer & fall's research -- verbal report was vague and inadequate." As to areas of needed improvement, defendant Stamp concluded that plaintiff needed to "[t]ry harder to anticipate research needs and to avoid conflicts with others in the lab and department." She further concluded that plaintiff needed to "[s]ee responsibilities through to completion (e.g., supervising undergraduate researchers)." On May 8, 1995, defendant Stamp sent plaintiff a letter regarding the scheduling of a meeting to discuss his lack of progress toward the Ph.D. In that letter, defendant Stamp wrote:

[a] meeting tomorrow at 11 AM is okay, but only if you are much more prepared for a meeting than you were last week. Too often you come to our meetings unprepared (e.g., about two of every three meetings last fall) and it becomes a waste of time for both of us.

As for his options at that time, she continued that:

[i]t is extremely unlikely that you could finish a Ph.D. here in less than 4 years. You will need at least two and more likely three summers to complete the research, and given that you haven't made plans for this summer yet, ...


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