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Matthew Gabriel, F/K/A Matta Ghobreyal v. Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences -- Vermont Campus

October 3, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William K. Sessions III Judge, United States District Court

OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 30, 34 and 47)

While a student at the Vermont campus of the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences ("ACPHS" or "College"), pro se plaintiff Matthew Gabriel was accused of plagiarism by one of his professors. Gabriel now brings this action, pro se, claiming that the accusation and resulting punishment were discriminatory. He also claims that Defendants' conduct constituted breach of contract.

There are sixteen Defendants in this case, including ACPHS itself, ACPHS administrators, professors and students, and the College's General Counsel ("ACPHS Defendants"). Gabriel also brings claims against the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education ("ACPE"), its Executive Director and Accreditation Facilitator ("ACPE Defendants").

The ACPHS Defendants have moved to dismiss, arguing first that Gabriel has failed to comply with the pleading requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 8. They further contend that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, and that Gabriel has failed to state a plausible claim for relief. The ACPE Defendants have also moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. For the reasons set forth below, the motions to dismiss are GRANTED, and Gabriel is granted leave to amend his discrimination claims.

Factual Background

In the fall of 2009, Gabriel was a full-time student at the ACPHS Vermont campus. The Vermont campus is a satellite of ACPHS's primary campus in Albany, New York. One of Gabriel's classes, Immunology, was taught by Professor Dorothy Pumo. On October 19, 2009, Professor Pumo assigned a 450-word report based upon a lecture by Professor Gail Goodman Snitkoff. Professor Snitkoff's lecture was presented live at the Albany campus, and via video at the Vermont campus.

Gabriel claims that one of his fellow students asked Professor Pumo "about using material from internet sources and the correct citation required" for the writing assignment. (Doc. 3 at 3.) Professor Pumo allegedly told the class "not to worry about it because Professor Snitkoff did not mention this," and that "there was not enough space to include citations in a 450 word report." Id.

After the students submitted their reports, Professor Pumo checked the reports for plagiarism using a program called Turnitin. According to the Amended Complaint, she then informed the class:

I read through the [T]urnitin report, I have not finished all of them, and I am distressed part of that [sic] is a large number of you seemingly copied full sentences from other works. I am getting a lot of matches to extraneous papers from other places. I am in no mood to report the entire class for plagiarism; that said I will do it if I have to. So I am giving everybody, well most people anyway a free pass on one sentence copied for this paper. I am not going to write up everybody for copying one sentence.

Id. at 5 (emphases in original).

Professor Pumo later reported Gabriel for plagiarism. When Gabriel asked whether other students had plagiarized as well, Professor Pumo allegedly confirmed that they had, but to a lesser degree. Gabriel claims he offered to re-write the assignment, and that although Professor Pumo said she would consider this alternative, she did not communicate with him again prior to reporting him to ACPHS Dean Ronald DeBellis.

Gabriel refers to Professor Pumo's allowance of limited plagiarism as the "'free pass' phenomenon," and claims that the practice was unlawful. Specifically, he contends that the class syllabus was a contract between Pumo and her students, yet the syllabus made no mention of the "'free pass' phenomenon." He therefore argues that the award of "free passes" constituted a breach of that contract. Gabriel also claims that he was denied a "free pass" because he is Egyptian American and a "Coptic Christian." Id. at 7.

Gabriel contends that two other incidents with Professor Pumo support his discrimination claim. First, he alleges that prior to the plagiarism incident, Pumo "inhibited the Plaintiff from using the bathroom during exam [sic] . . . and allowed everybody else in the class to use it." Id. at 6. Second, he claims that when one of his exam times conflicted with his citizenship ceremony, Professor Pumo initially refused to offer him a makeup date. Although a makeup date was ultimately set, Gabriel contends that it resulted in his having two exams on the same day, and that after the second exam he required medical treatment for a severe tension headache.

The plagiarism charge was considered by the College's Honor Code Review Committee ("Committee"), comprised of ACPHS students, professors, and administrators. In a letter delivered to Gabriel by Dean DeBellis, the Committee informed Gabriel of its conclusion that he had, in fact, committed plagiarism, and that he would receive a failing grade for the writing assignment. Gabriel also reports having had an informal meeting with committee member Jason Long, and a formal meeting with Professor Joanna Schwartz. During both meetings, he was allegedly advised to accept his punishment.

Gabriel claims that in its handling of the plagiarism charge, ACPHS violated its own Honor Code in several respects. The alleged violations included: failure by Professor Pumo to submit the allegation to the "Honor Code Box" or in person to an Honor Code Faculty Co-Advisor; failure to provide Gabriel with written notice of the charges; failure to make an effort to mediate the issue; failure to provide Gabriel with an advisor; failure to provide a hearing; and failure to notify Gabriel of his right to appeal the Committee's decision. Id. at 24-27.

Gabriel contends that the Honor Code, like the course syllabus, constituted a contract between the college and its students, and that Defendants breached that contract by allowing Professor Pumo's "free pass" policy.*fn1 He also claims that if he had been granted "the opportunity as an Egyptian American Citizen to explain the situation, plaintiff believes he would not have received a failing grade and, more important, would not have suffered the psychological and emotional distress and physical illness, which plaintiff experienced thereafter." Id. at 19.

In November 2009, shortly after receiving the Committee's ruling, Gabriel requested and was granted a medical leave from school. The request was supported by a letter from Dr. Richard Ober, a consulting psychologist.

Dr. Ober reported that Gabriel had "referred himself to this office for the treatment of a range of confusing emotional responses to his circumstances." (Doc. 1-3 at 2.) Dr. Ober further opined that "[d]ue to a number of factors in his life," Gabriel was affected by "significant levels of stress" that had resulted in anxiety, problems with sleep and concentration, an "inability to enjoy normal activities, appetite disturbance and consequent weight loss, worry, decreased energy, gastrointestinal disturbance and feelings of sadness and loss." Id. Dr. Ober's letter stated that "[t]hese effects are coincidental with beginning the program at [ACPHS]," that medications had not been effective, and that he therefore supported Gabriel's request for a medical leave. Id.

Gabriel explains that his withdrawal from ACPHS was precipitated by his "discriminatory treatment and the prejudice the plaintiff was subjected to by [ACPHS] in general and from Dr. Pumo in particular . . . ." Gabriel further claims that the situation was "aggravat[ed]" by his treatment by Dean DeBellis, who allegedly "yell[ed] and scream[ed]" at Gabriel during meetings regarding the plagiarism accusation.

The Amended Complaint reports that Gabriel was ultimately informed by ACPHS officials -- specifically, Dean DeBellis and Director of Counseling Services Dr. Peter Cornish -- that the allegation of plagiarism was being withdrawn and that, as a result, there would be "nothing in [Gabriel's] file." (Doc. 3 at 22.) When Gabriel requested a letter of confirmation, Dean DeBellis allegedly declined, explaining that "nothing took place, nothing happened, there is nothing to be in writing . . . . We need to put this to bed[,] it is over . . . ." Id.

Because of his experience at the Vermont campus, Gabriel asked to be transferred to the Albany campus. At first, he did not receive any response from either Dean DeBellis or Dr. Cornish about his request. He later called Dean DeBellis, who allegedly denied the request without explanation. A second request was denied by Dean DeBellis by letter, again without explanation. (Doc. 1-26 at 2.) Gabriel reports that he has since "decided not to go to Vermont again and plaintiff has enrolled in a different school to complete my pharmacy studies which has cost me time and money." (Doc. 3 at 25.)

On August 20, 2010, Gabriel complained to ACPE and ACPHS officials about how he had been treated. The ACPE response, authored by Defendant Lindsay Antikainen, informed Gabriel that "[a]fter our review of your complaint along with the information provided to us by the Dean of the College of Pharmacy, it was determined that no accreditation standards have been violated in this instance." (Doc. 1-33 at 2.) Gabriel contends that several accreditation standards were, in fact, violated. He also alleges that ACPE accredited the Vermont campus prematurely, a result of which was the lack of certain technological resources and a campus ...

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