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Kindred v. National College of Business and Technology, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

March 19, 2015

MARY KINDRED
v.
NATIONAL COLLEGE OF BUSINESS AND TECHNOLOGY, INC. ET AL.

Session: October 23, 2014.

Appeal from the Circuit Court for Shelby County No. CT00402511 Robert L. Childers, Judge.

Al H. Thomas and Aaron Thomas, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Mary Kindred.

W. Brantley Phillips, Jr., Nashville Tennessee, and Jonathan E. Nelson, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellees, National College of Business and Technology and Noel Denny.

Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Arnold B. Goldin, J., joined.

OPINION

FRANK G. CLEMENT, JR., JUDGE.

Mary Kindred ("Plaintiff) enrolled at the Memphis campus of National College of Business and Technology ("National College")[1] in March 2009 and eventually elected to pursue a degree as a medical assistant.[2] When Plaintiff enrolled, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (the "THEC") allowed students to attest on their enrollment application that they had either received a high school transcript or some form of high school equivalency certificate, e.g., a General Educational Development ("GED"). However, that policy changed in September 2009, at which time National College informed all students, including Plaintiff, that THEC Rule 1540-01-02-.15(6)(b) required National College to "have on file an official copy of the high school transcript, or the equivalency certificate with scores which meet the state's minimum for passing . . ." for each enrolled student. (Emphasis added).[3]

On August 12, 2010, approximately two weeks before the start of Term 107, Plaintiff went to National College to obtain a copy of the Term 107 schedule. National College advised Plaintiff that her student file did not contain an official copy of her GED and, thus, was not in compliance with the THEC. Plaintiff alleges that she was "shocked" to learn her student file was not in compliance, and further alleges that it was National College's responsibility to get her GED transcript from the Memphis Board of Education.[4] At that time, instead of providing an official copy of her GED certificate, Plaintiff presented her GED diploma card, for the intended purpose of demonstrating that she received a passing score on the GED. National College made a copy of Plaintiffs GED card and provided her with a copy of the Term 107 schedule; however, it is undisputed that prior to the start of Term 107, Plaintiffs student file did not contain an official copy of her GED certificate; nevertheless, Plaintiff alleges that she reasonably believed that to be the end of the matter.

Term 107 began on August 30, 2010, and Plaintiff attended classes for approximately one week before Noel Denney, the director of National College's Memphis campus, was informed of her attendance. Because Plaintiffs student file did not have an official copy of her GED certificate and, thus, was not in compliance with the THEC, Mr. Denney cancelled Plaintiffs enrollment in Term 107. Mr. Denney advised Plaintiff of the reason for the cancellation and that she would not be charged tuition for that term. Mr. Denney further informed Plaintiff that she could return to classes in the following term so long as her student file was in compliance at that time.

According to Plaintiff, Mr. Denney communicated to her that when she went to obtain her Term 107 class schedule, National College gave her a deadline of August 13, 2010, to bring her student file into compliance by providing an official copy of her GED certificate; because Plaintiff failed to comply with the deadline, Mr. Denney cancelled her enrollment. Plaintiff contends that she was not given a deadline nor told by National College that it was her responsibility to provide the GED certificate. She further alleges that Mr. Denney told her he was choosing to accept the word of his employees rather than her version.

On the same day Plaintiff was informed of the cancellation of her enrollment, she procured an official copy of her GED certificate from the Memphis Board of Education and delivered it to Mr. Denny. Plaintiff contends she reasonably believed she had cured her compliance issue and returned to Term 107 classes. However, Plaintiff was informed that Mr. Denny had affirmed his decision to cancel her enrollment because her student file was not in compliance prior to the start of the term.

Plaintiff alleges that the actions by Mr. Denny and National College ("Defendants") in the termination of her enrollment were arbitrary, and unjustified, and that she felt as though she could no longer pursue her educational goals because she could not continue at National College and could not start over somewhere else at her age. Nevertheless, Plaintiff contends that through the encouragement of others, she was "inspired to try and suppress her feelings of pain and distress and return to National College."

In November 2010, approximately two months after the cancellation of her enrollment, Plaintiff enrolled in Term 111. Upon enrollment, Plaintiff was informed that she had an outstanding balance in the amount of $521 for textbooks she purchased during Term 107, and that she could not enroll until the balance was paid. Plaintiff attempted to return her textbooks for a refund; however, the return and refund was not allowed.[5] Plaintiff alleges that she perceived this incident as abusive, degrading, and a continuation of Defendants' previous treatment towards her, that being the "degrading termination of her enrollment [in Term 107]." Nevertheless, according to Plaintiff, she continued to persevere in suppressing these feelings and paid the balance.

Plaintiff attended two additional terms at National College, Term 111 (November 2010 - February 2011) and Term 113 (March 2011 - May 2011). During this time, Plaintiff alleges that National College "caused additional incidents to happen to [Plaintiff]" which she alleges to be abusive, degrading, and a continuation of Defendants' previous treatment towards her; however, Plaintiff only identifies one incident. According to Plaintiff, the incident occurred at the conclusion of Term 113 in May 2011 when she challenged a failing grade "that National College gave her" in one of her courses. Plaintiff perceives "the failing grade and National College's review of the grade to be a continuation of [Defendants'] abusive and degrading treatment." Plaintiff alleges that after this incident, she could no longer suppress her pain and distress that began with National College's "degrading termination of her enrollment eight months earlier." Plaintiff further alleges that this forced her to cease her attendance at National College and abandon her educational/professional goals. In June 2011, Plaintiff informed National College that she would not be enrolling in the following term.

Plaintiff, acting pro se, initiated this action in September 2011. With the benefit of counsel, Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint (the "Complaint "), the operative pleading in this appeal, on June 21, 2013. Plaintiff alleges a cause of action under breach of contract against National College; intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED") against both Mr. Denney and National College; and a violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act ("TCPA") against both Mr. Denney and National College.

Defendants moved to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(6). Following a hearing, the trial court found that the Complaint did not allege viable claims for violations of the TCPA or IIED and dismissed those claims, but denied the motion to dismiss the claim for breach of contract. Specifically, the court found that because National College is an educational institution whose activities are not subject to the TCPA, and that, per the allegations in the Complaint, National College had not engaged in a deceptive or unfair trade practice, Plaintiff failed to state a claim for violation of the TCPA. With respect to Plaintiffs claim for IIED, the trial court found that because Defendants had not engaged in conduct so egregious and outrageous as cannot be tolerated by a reasonable person, normally constituted, in a civilized society, per the allegations in the Complaint, Plaintiff failed to state a claim for IIED. Specifically, the trial court stated that "[f]or example, the Complaint alleges that, despite Defendants' purported conduct towards her, Plaintiff re-enrolled at National College and attended classes for several months following the incident at issue." Based upon the foregoing, the trial court dismissed Plaintiffs claim for recovery under the TCPA and IIED.

Following the trial court's order of dismissal, Plaintiff filed two motions: a motion to revise the order dismissing her claims under TCPA and IIED, and a motion to amend the Complaint to add recovery for emotional distress damages under breach of contract. Both motions were denied.

Plaintiffs claim for breach of contract alleges that an enforceable agreement, either written, oral, or a combination of both, was formed whereby in exchange for her enrollment and tuition, National College agreed to provide Plaintiff access to her chosen course of studies at National College. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants' action in terminating her enrollment constitutes a breach of National College's contractual obligation to provide her access to her chosen course of study. Plaintiff further alleges she attempted to mitigate the damages but that she was either "unable to" or National College made it "too hard for her." Plaintiff claims that, due to National College's alleged breach, she lost the "expected value of her chosen course of studies" that would have qualified her as a medical assistant.

Defendants moved to summarily dismiss Plaintiff's remaining claim for breach of contract for two primary reasons. First, with respect to Plaintiff's breach of contract claim against Mr. Denney, Defendants assert that, per the allegations of the Complaint, Plaintiff only alleged a cause of action against National College and not Mr. Denney in his individual capacity; thus, Plaintiff had no legal basis to maintain the breach of contract action against Mr. Denny. Second, Defendants assert that, assuming, arguendo, there is an enforceable contract between National College and Plaintiff, and that the temporary suspension of Plaintiff s enrollment rises to the level of a breach of the contract, Plaintiff cannot establish the essential element of damages. Specifically, Defendants assert Plaintiffs claimed damages are impermissibly speculative and that Plaintiff is unable to show her alleged damages were caused by the alleged breach of contract, that being the cancellation of her enrollment in Term 107. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition.

Following a hearing on Defendants' motion for summary judgment, the trial court summarily dismissed Plaintiffs breach of contract claim against Mr. Denney based upon the finding that no contractual relationship existed between Plaintiff and Mr. Denney individually.[6] The trial court also summarily dismissed Plaintiff's breach of contract claim against National College based upon the finding that National College successfully negated two essential elements of Plaintiff s claim.

This appeal followed. Plaintiff presents six issues for our review; however, we consolidate and restate the issues as follows:

1. Whether the trial court erred in summarily dismissing Plaintiffs breach of contract claim.

2. Whether the trial court erred in dismissing Plaintiff's claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

3. Whether the trial court erred in dismissing Plaintiff's claim under the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act.

4. Whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying Plaintiff's motion to file a third amended complaint to include a claim for emotional distress damages as a component of her breach of contract claim.

We will begin our analysis with the summary dismissal of Plaintiff's breach of contract claim.

Analysis

I. Summary Judgment

Plaintiffs breach of contract claim was disposed of by means of summary judgment. Because the resolution of a motion for summary judgment is a matter of law, we review the trial court's judgment de novo with no presumption of correctness. Martin v. Norfolk Southern Ry. Co., 271 S.W.3d 76, 84 (Tenn. 2008). This Court must make a fresh determination that all the requirements of Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 56 have been satisfied. Abshure v. Methodist-Healthcare-Memphis Hosps., 325 S.W.3d 98, 103 (Tenn. 2010). As does the trial court, the appellate court considers the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and resolves all inferences in that party's favor. Martin, 271 S.W.3d at 84; Stovall v. Clarke, 113 S.W.3d 715, 721 (Tenn. 2003); Godfrey v. Ruiz, 90 S.W.3d 692, 695 (Tenn. 2002). To be entitled to summary judgment, the moving party must affirmatively negate an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim or demonstrate to the court that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim. Tenn. Code. Ann. ยง 20-16-101 (effective on ...


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