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Winter v. American Institute of Medical Sciences & Education

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 17, 2017

PETRUS J. WINTER, Plaintiff,
v.
AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF MEDICAL SCIENCES & EDUCATION, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER

          NELSON S. ROMAN, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Petrus J. Winter ("Winter" or "Plaintiff") brings this action against American Institute of Medical Sciences & Education ("AIMS" or "Defendant"), a private health training school that offers certificate degree programs. In October 2014, Winter graduated from AIMS Education with a certificate in magnetic resonance imaging technology ("MRI Tech"). Shortly after graduating, Winter sat for and passed the national examination administered by the American Registry for Magnetic Resonance Imagining Technologists ("ARMRIT"), a certifying board that lists successful examinees in its registry. Upon being certified in magnetic resonance imaging, Winter stalled to apply for positions as an MRI Technologist, but despite his "active[] and diligent[]" efforts, he has not received a single job offer.

         Asserting that he is "legally unemployable as an MRI Technologist, " Winter is now suing AIMS Education. (Compl. ¶ 12, ECF No. 1.) Specifically, Winter alleges that AIMS (1) breached a quasi or implied-in-law contract; (2) engaged in fraud and misrepresentation; and (3) engaged in unfair and deceptive business practices. AIMS moves to dismiss the action and argues that (1) Winter's entire suit is barred by the educational malpractice doctrine; (2) the breach of contract claim fails.because Winter signed an express enrollment contract with AIMS Education; and (3) the fraud claim fails because Plaintiff failed to plead the elements with the specificity required by Rule 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (See Def.'s Mem. of Law in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss (“Def.'s Mem.”) at 1-2, ECF No. 15.) Alternatively, AIMS moved to transfer the action to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, pursuant to Title 28, United States Code, Section 1404(a). (Def.'s Mem. at 22.) For the reasons explained below, Defendant's motion to transfer is DENIED in its entirety and Defendant's motion to dismiss is GRANTED in its entirety.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts - which are taken from the Complaint, documents it incorporates, and matters of which the court may take judicial notice - are construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. See, e.g., Kleinman v. Elan Corp., 706 F.3d 145, 152 (2d Cir. 2013); LaFaro v. N.Y. Cardiothoracic Grp., PLLC, 570 F.3d 471, 475 (2d Cir. 2009); Aurecchione v. Schoolman Transp. Sys., Inc., 426 F.3d 635, 638 (2d Cir. 2005).

         The relevant facts are relatively straightforward. AIMS Education is a private, allied health training school organized and existing under the laws of New Jersey with its principal place of business in Piscataway, New Jersey. (See Def.'s Mem. at 3.) The school is approved by the U.S. Department of Education and State of New Jersey Department of Education, and its MRI certificate program is accredited by ARMRIT. (Id.)

         Winter, who is domiciled in New York, is seeking to be employed as an MRI Technologist and despite having graduated from AIMS Education and obtained his certificate from ARMRIT, he has not received a single job offer. (Compl. ¶ 20.) The Complaint alleges that AIMS Education improperly induced Plaintiff to enroll in its MRI program and, accordingly, failed to properly train him with certain skills required by “almost every available employment opportunity for an MRI Technologist.” (Compl. ¶ 13.) Plaintiff reasons that because “it is impossible for [him] to find employment as an MRI technologist” Defendant's program is “absolutely worthless.” (Compl. ¶ 20.)

         On or about December 2011, Winter first learned about MRI certificate program offered at AIMS from the school's website, which advertised that “(t)he number of MRI job opportunities is growing faster than the availability of qualified MRI Technologists, ” “result(ing) in tremendous career opportunities for all of our graduates.” (Compl. ¶ 6.) The same website represented the “minimum requirements” to enroll in the MRI Tech program as a “High School Diploma or GED.” (Id.) The same further represented that the school offered a “[c]omprehensive education and training” course that included, inter alia, “IV [intra-venous] therapy.” (Id.)

         Motivated by these representations, Plaintiff traveled to New Jersey on January 23, 2012, for an informational interview with the school's administrative director, Mr. Chirag Patel. (Compl. ¶ 7.) During this introductory meeting, Mr. Patel explained that the school's MRI program is accredited by ARMRIT and not the American Registry of Radiologic Technology (“ARRT”). (Compl. ¶¶ 9, 19.) The pleadings - read most liberally - suggest that employers favor technicians who are certified by ARRT.[1] (Compl. ¶¶ 14, 17.) Whereas both ARMRIT and ARRT require candidates to complete a board-accredited professional program, [2] such as AIMS's MRI certificate program, ARRT (referred to by Plaintiff as “the primary credentialing organization in the United States”) seems to set a higher bar for entry.[3] (Compl. ¶ 17.) For instance, ARRT technicians must have completed training in both MRI and radiology whereas ARMRIT certifies technicians competent in only MRI. Moreover, ARRT candidates must have earned the equivalent of a U.S. associate degree from an accredited institution, whereas ARMRIT will accept high school diplomas or GED. Concerned that employers would prefer technicians certified by ARRT, Winter asked Mr. Patel “about ARMRIT's level of acceptance” in the field during their initial interview. (Compl. ¶ 19.) Winter also explained that he had earned the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in the Netherlands. (Decl. Michael H. Freeman, Esq. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss (“Freeman Decl.”), ECF No. 16, Ex. 3 (“Initial Review Questionnaire”).) Winter alleges that Mr. Patel “falsely and disingenuously” responded “that ARMRIT was accepted everywhere.” (Compl. ¶ 19.) Relying on these guarantees, Winter enrolled in AIMS on January 23, 2012. (Compl. ¶¶ 7-9, 11.)

         On January 23, 2012, Winter signed the two documents governing the agreement. First, Winter signed the “Enrollment Contract, ” a sparse one-page document that includes the following disclaimer:

No representative of AIMS EDUCATION has promised me employment or any specific starting salary. The student acknowledges that AIMS EDUCATION (i.e. the school) does not warrant or guarantee that successful completion by the student of the programs will result in the student obtaining employment in any field or profession.

(Freeman Decl., Ex. 4. (“Enrollment Contract”).) This disclaimer appears at the bottom of the one-page contract, immediately preceding Winter's signature.

         Second, Winter signed an “Employment / Registry Assistant Consent, ” with the principal understanding that “finding employment is a joint effort between the school and [Winter].” (Freeman Decl., Ex. 6 (“Employment Consent Form”).) The one-page consent form also states, in relevant part, that “[t]he student acknowledges that AIMS EDUCATION (i.e., the school) does not warrant or guarantee that successful completion by the student of the programs will result in the student obtaining employment in any field or profession.” Id. At the same time, Winter was also handed a single-page advertisement reiterating what Winter learned from the school's website: “[t]he availability of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) job opportunities is growing faster than the number of qualified medical MRI technologists.” (Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss (“Pl.'s Opp'n Mem.”) at 3, ECF No. 18.)

         After signing these two documents, AIMS Education mailed Winter published catalogs describing the MRI Certification Program as one “designed to prepare high school graduates to become MRI technologists and preparing them to sit for the ARMRIT Registry certification examination in Magnetic Resonance Imaging.” (Freeman Decl., Ex. 2 (“Course Catalog”), at 59.) The Course Catalog also stated that students would be instructed for a total of “1980 clock hours, ” “75” of which were designated as “CPR, Venipuncture, Intra Venous Therapy Skills.” (Id. at 60.)

         Winter started his evening course on October 22, 2012. Between October 2012 and August 2014 (approximately twenty-two months), Winter traveled to New Jersey every weekday for instruction, and successfully completed the course requirements. By the time Winter graduated in August 2014, he had paid a total tuition of $29, 550.00. (Compl. ¶ 8.)

         In his exit graduation survey dated September 25, 2014, Winter “stated that he was completely satisfied with the quality of his education at AIMS Education.” (Compl. ¶ 20.) Then in October 2014, Winter prepared for and passed ARMRIT's certification exam. Soon after obtaining his ARMRIT certificate, Winter “actively and diligently” applied for positions as an MRI Technologists. (Id.) As of the Complaint's filing date, Winter had “not received a single offer of employment.” (Id.)

         Winter filed this lawsuit on September 23, 2015. (See ECF No. 1.) According to the Complaint, AIMS Education also made a series of false statements and representations that inflated the rigor of its training, the success of its graduates, and Winter's prospective employment opportunities. (Compl. ¶¶ 16, 19-20; respectively). Specifically, Winter alleges that (1) Defendant's fraudulent scheme induced him to enroll in a certificate degree program, (2) deprived him of essential skills required of almost every available job opportunity (i.e., intra-venous therapy skills), and (3) rendered him “legally unemployable as an MRI Technologist.” (Compl. ¶ 12.) The Complaint alleges breach of implied or quasi contract (id. ¶¶ 21-26), fraud and misrepresentation (id. ¶¶ 27-33), and unfair and deceptive business practices (id. ¶¶ 34-38). Defendants move to dismiss the Complaint in its entirety, moving in the alternative to transfer the case to the District of New Jersey.

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Motion to Transfer

         “For the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought or to any district or division to which all parties have consented.” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a).

         In considering a motion to transfer venue, the inquiry is twofold. Freeplay Music v. Gibson Brands, No. 16-CV- 457 (VM), 2016 WL 4097804, at *1-2 (S.D.N.Y. July 18, 2016) (citing Smart Skins v. Microsoft, No. 14-CV-10149, 2015 WL 1499843, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2015) (“The Second Circuit applies a two-part test to motions to transfer venue under § 1404(a).”). First, the court must determine whether the action could have been brought in the proposed transferee forum. See AEC One Stop Grp. v. CD Listening Bar, 326 F.Supp.2d 525, 528 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (“The threshold question in deciding transfer of venue … is whether the action could have been brought in the transferee forum.”).

         If the action could have been filed in the proposed transferee district, the court must then determine whether transfer is appropriate. This inquiry is guided by a non-exhaustive list of factors, including: (1) the plaintiff's choice of forum, (2) the convenience of the witnesses, (3) the location of relevant documents and relative ease of access to sources of proof, (4) the convenience of the parties, (5) the locus of operative facts, (6) the availability of process to compel the attendance of unwilling witnesses, (7) the relative means of the parties, (8) the forum's familiarity with the government law, and (9) trial efficiency and the interest of justice. See, e.g., N.Y. Marine & Gen. Ins. Co. v. Lafarge N. Am. Inc., 599 F.3d 102, 112 (2d Cir. 2010); Larew v. Larew, No. 11-CV-5771 (BSJ) (GWG), 2012 WL 87616, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 10, 2012).

         “No one factor is dispositive and the relative weight of each factor depends on the particular circumstances of the case.” Smart Skins, 2015 WL 1499843, at *4. However, because the discretion under Section 1404 “ ‘must be exercised at the very outset of the case, when relatively little is known about how the case will develop, courts have typically accorded substantial weight to the [eighth] factor, plaintiff's choice of forum.'” Atl. Recording v. Project Playlist, 603 F.Supp.2d 690, 695 (S.D.N.Y. 2009); see also Columbia Pictures Indus. v. Fung, 447 F.Supp.2d 306, 309 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (“Absent a clear cut and convincing showing by defendant that the balance of convenience weighs strongly in favor of the transferee court, plaintiff's choice of forum will not be set aside.”).

         B. 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the complaint must plead “enough facts to state a claim for relied that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim will have “facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”[4] Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Although all allegations contained in the complaint are assumed to be true, this tenet is “inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Id.

         C. Rule 9(b)

         Finally, to the extent that a plaintiff alleges fraud, Rule 9(b) requires the plaintiff to plead his claims “with particularity, ” specifying “the circumstances constituting fraud.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b). In particular, “the complaint must: (1) specify the statements that the plaintiff contends were fraudulent, (2) identify the speaker, (3) state where and when the statements were made, and (4) explain why the statements were fraudulent.” Lerner v. Fleet Bank, N.A., 459 F.3d 273, 290 (2d Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). Failure to satisfy the Rule 9(b) standard, if applicable, is grounds for dismissal. See, e.g., id. at 293; Slayton v. Am. Express Co., 604 F.3d 758, 766 (2d Cir. 2010).

         DISCUSSION

         As noted above, Plaintiff brings claims for (1) breach of contract, (2) fraud and misrepresentation, and (3) unfair and deceptive business practices. (Compl. ¶¶ 21-38.) Defendant moves to dismiss on several grounds. First, it argues that because all of Plaintiff's claims arise from the theory that his education was deficient, the entire Complaint is barred by the educational malpractice doctrine. (Def.'s Mem. at 1, 8-16.) Second, Defendant moves, presumably pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), to dismiss any of Plaintiff's surviving claims. (Id. at 16-17.) Finally, Defendant moves, pursuant to Rule 9, to dismiss Plaintiff's fraud claim for failure to plead the elements with the required specificity. (Id. at 17-22.) Defendant moves in the alternative, pursuant to Section 1404(a), to transfer venue to the District of New Jersey. (Id. at 22-25.) Because Defendant's request to transfer this matter presents a threshold issue, the Court will first consider the parties' arguments concerning § 1404(a) before proceeding to the merits of Plaintiff's claims.

         I. Motion to Transfer Venue

         The Court turns first to Defendant's motion to transfer the case to the District of New Jersey. Upon due consideration of the parties' submissions (ECF Nos. 14-19), the Court concludes that transfer to the District of New Jersey is not warranted.

         In considering whether to transfer a case pursuant to Section 1404(a), a court must first establish that the case could have been filed in the transferee district and, if so, determine whether the convenience and the interest of justice favor transfer. See, e.g., Bosson v. Buena Cepa Wines, No. 11-CV-6890 (VB), 2011 WL 6182368, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 12, 2011); Fuji Photo Film v. Lexar Media, 415 F.Supp.2d 370, 373 (S.D.N.Y. 2006).

         The answer to the first inquiry is yes -this action could have been brought in the District of New Jersey and there is no dispute as to the issue. § 1404(a) does not condition transfer on the initial forum's being “wrong” and it permits transfer to any district where venue is also proper (i.e., “where [the case] might have been brought”) or to any other district to which the parties have agreed by contract or stipulation. Atl. Marine Const. Co. v. U.S. Dist. Court for W. Dist. of Texas, 134 U.S. 568, 579 (2013). The question whether venue is “wrong” or “improper” is generally governed by 28 U.S.C. § 1391.[5] Id. at 578 (“The most reasonable interpretation of [1404(a)] is that a district court cannot be ‘wrong' if it is one in which the case could have been brought under § 1391”). That provision states that “[e]xcept as otherwise provided by law … this section shall govern the venue of all civil actions brought in district courts of the United States.” § 1391(a)(1). It further provides that “[a] civil action may be brought in - (1) a judicial district in which any defendant resides, if all defendants are residents of the State in which the district is located; (2) a judicial district in which a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred, or a substantial part of property that is the subject of the action is situated; or (3) if there is no district in which an action may otherwise be brought as provided in this section, any judicial district in which any defendant is subject to the court's personal jurisdiction with respect to such action.” § 1391(b). When venue is challenged, the court must determine whether the case falls within one of the three categories set out in § 1391(b). Atl. Marine Const., 134 U.S. at 577.

         In the instant action, Defendant resides in the District of New Jersey, where it is incorporated, has its nerve center, and does business. (Compl. ¶ 2; Def.'s Mem. at 23.) Since Defendant is “at home” in the District of New Jersey, it resides in the proposed transferee district for the purposes of Section 1400(a). Therefore, the first prong of the inquiry for a motion to transfer venue is satisfied. Since the action could have been filed in the District of New Jersey, the Court will now consider the ...


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