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Sifuna v. South College of Tennessee, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville

May 12, 2017



         In this action, plaintiff claims breach of an express or implied contract and promissory estoppel following her academic dismissal from South College's School of Pharmacy. Currently pending before the court is defendant's motion for summary judgment [R. 19], to which plaintiff has responded [R. 43]. The court has carefully considered the pending motion, plaintiff's response, and the supporting exhibits in light of the applicable law. For the reasons stated herein, the court finds defendant's motion for summary judgment well-taken, and the motion will be granted.

         I. Factual Background

         South College is a private, co-educational institution offering an accelerated three (3) year program for a Doctor of Pharmacy degree. Sifuna attended South College between February 2012 and her academic dismissal in December 2013.

         South College has an Experiential Education Program that requires students to take and pass a number of clinical rotations at pharmacies and medical institutions under the supervision of instructors and licensed pharmacists who are referred to as “preceptors.” Students must take and pass a certain number of clinical rotation courses in order to obtain their Doctor of Pharmacy Degree. The clinical rotations also serve as “contact hours” required for licensure by the Tennessee Board of Pharmacy, so the courses are essential both for obtaining a degree and a license to practice pharmacy.

         The Student Handbook emphasizes professionalism as a core competency for student pharmacists. The Class Conduct policy states that students are expected to conduct themselves at all times in a professional and responsible manner. The Experiential Education Handbook for clinical rotations contains provisions requiring professional conduct by student pharmacists, including “Attendance and being on time are hallmarks of professionalism. If a student anticipates being late for a rotation, it is the student's responsibility to contact the preceptor.” Attendance at all scheduled clinical rotations is mandatory; and “student pharmacists are responsible for being at sites and ready for activities they may be responsible for in a regular and timely manner and ready to begin on time.” Students who engage in practices, attitudes or characteristics deemed unprofessional by faculty may be subject to disciplinary review.

         Sifuna had successfully completed three of four required clinical rotations. In August 2012, Kellie Goza, Director for clinical rotations, emailed Sifuna's class to schedule a clinical rotation for 2013. The rotations were for one week consisting of five days, eight hours per day. Students were given three weeks from which to choose - Sifuna chose the week of September 16-20, 2013. That was the last week the clinical rotation was offered during the second year of the curriculum. The Experiential Education Handbook for clinical rotations states it is the responsibility of the student to contact the preceptor by phone or email within ten working days of the start of a rotation. The purpose of the contact is to make an introduction to the preceptor, obtain specifics of the site location, parking, hours, and establish the first day of the rotation. Sifuna did not communicate with her preceptor, Dr. Long, in advance of the start of the rotation.

         Sifuna failed to report for the start of her rotation at City Drug on September 16 and at 11:45, Dr. Long left a voicemail message for Goza. When Goza returned Dr. Long's call, he told her that Sifuna did not show up to start the rotation and did not contact him in advance. He further told Goza that Sifuna called him around 11:45 a.m. and stated that she arrived at 8:00 a.m., but the store was “closed, ” and the sign said they did not open until 9:00 a.m. Sifuna told Dr. Long that she went to Maryville College, got lost, could not find her way back to City Drug, and decided to go home. Goza told Dr. Long that he was free to make his own decision about what he wanted to do with Sifuna. Dr. Long told Goza that Sifuna could not return to City Drug.

         Sifuna went to Goza's office at approximately 4:00 p.m. on September 16. Sifuna claimed she did not have the correct telephone number for Dr. Long. She admitted that she did not contact Dr. Long prior to her rotation because “she was familiar with City Drug.” She claimed that Dr. Long told her she could come on Tuesday, September 17 to start her rotation. Goza informed Sifuna that Dr. Long had found Sifuna's behavior unacceptable and she would not be permitted to do her rotation at City Drug. Goza advised Sifuna to contact Dr. Long that afternoon to apologize for her lack of communication and ask if he would permit her to complete the rotation with him at City Drug. Goza further advised that if Dr. Long did not permit her to complete the rotation at this time, the only other option would be to complete a rotation the week of December 16-20, 2013, with another preceptor.

         Sifuna did not contact Dr. Long that afternoon as directed. Goza called Dr. Long at 5:00 p.m. to ask if Sifuna had made contact with him. Dr. Long reported that he had not heard from her and reiterated that at this point she would not be permitted to return in light of her unprofessional conduct. In Dr. Long's view, Sifuna's conduct in failing to contact him to make arrangements to start the rotation, failing to show up to start the rotation, claiming that she had been there but left and became lost within a half a mile from the store, and then deciding to go home, constituted unprofessional conduct, which he deemed unacceptable.

         The next morning, Dr. Long testified that Sifuna appeared at City Drug at 8:00 a.m. He was behind the counter. Because Sifuna did not approach the counter or say anything, Dr. Long approached her and asked if there was anything he could help her with. Sifuna said, “I'm here for the rotation.” Dr. Long informed Sifuna that she would not be doing her rotation at City Drug. Sifuna said “okay” and turned and left.

         Sifuna states that at least one month before the scheduled rotation, she sent an email to Dr. Long advising him that she was supposed to have a rotation at his pharmacy September 16-20, and asking him if there was anything that she needed to know. When Dr. Long did not respond to her email, Sifuna attempted to call him about a week before September 16, but no one answered the call. Sifuna then researched City Drug online and found that the pharmacy opened at 8:00 a.m.

         On September 16, 2013, Sifuna drove to City Drug, which is located on Lamar Alexander Parkway. She arrived prior to 8:00 a.m. When she pulled into the parking lot, she noticed a sign on a door of the building that said it was closed and was open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The door also had a sign on it that said “City Drug Home Medical Equipment.” Sifuna became confused and wondered if she was at the right place. After sitting in the parking lot for a few minutes, a truck drove by that had a bumper sticker on it that said “If I had known it would come to this, I would have picked my own cotton.” That made Sifuna uncomfortable, so she decided to go to Maryville College which is also on Lamar Alexander Parkway.

         Siguna went to the library at Maryville College and tried to call City Drug, but got no answer. She left the college intending to return to City Drug, but got lost. She returned to the library at Maryville College and used Mapquest to get directions to City Drug. Sifuna got lost again, so she found the interstate back to Knoxville. When she got back to Knoxville, Sifuna called Dr. Long around 10:45 a.m. She explained what had happened and asked if she could return the following day to start her rotation and Dr. Long said that would be okay. Sifuna returned to City Drug the next day and arrived a few minutes before 8:00 a.m. At that point, she figured out she should have gone to another door a few feet away from the one she went to the previous day. Sifuna had gone to the medical equipment business door, which opened at 9:00 a.m., and the other door was for the pharmacy, which opened at 8:00 a.m. When Sifuna went to the pharmacy door on the morning of September 17, Dr. Long was stepping out to get the newspaper. When Sifuna told him who she was, Dr. Long told her that she would not be doing her rotation there and went back into the pharmacy. Sifuna testified that after Dr. Long declined to let her start the rotation on September 17, she “went on vacation” to Nashville because she was “stressed out.” She did not further contact Goza to arrange a substitute rotation for the week.

         Because Sifuna did not complete the clinical rotation at City Drug, Dr. Long never gave Sifuna any type of evaluation or grade, thus, Dr. Freeman, as course director, assigned her an “F”. Dr. Freeman notified Dr. Hussein, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, that although she had sent two emails, she had received no communication from Sifuna. On September 23, Sifuna finally responded to Dr. Freeman asking if she could do a make-up rotation over Thanksgiving break. Dr. Freeman replied that she did not have any preceptors available and told Sifuna that she could complete the rotation December 16-20, 2013. Sifuna requested that she not return to City Drug “because the experience from that particular store/community would not be very helpful to my goals and where I plan to use my education.”

         On October 15, 2013, Sifuna emailed Dr. Hussein telling him she was uncomfortable going to Maryville. She wished to make up her rotation November 16-20, and she would find her own location. Sifuna also stated she was going to be in London for a sibling's wedding during December 16-20. Dr. Hussein directed Sifuna to contact Dr. Freeman to make up the rotation. He further informed Sifuna that her failure to complete the rotation would result in dismissal from the program. By October 28, 2013, Sifuna had done nothing to address her issues related to the failed clinical rotation with Dr. Freeman.

         Dr. Freeman contacted Sifuna on November 20, 2013, asking her to meet to discuss rescheduling the clinical rotation. Because of Sifuna's complaint about “being uncomfortable” at City Drug, wanting a pharmacy that “fit her goals, ” and her representation that she was going to be out of the country the week of December 16-20, Dr. Freeman want to meet with Sifuna to see if she intended to do the clinical rotation in December, to give her a choice of locations, to hear her explanation of what occurred with Dr. Long, and to go over professionalism issues. Sifuna testified that she went by Dr. Freeman's office, but she was not in the office, and Sifuna never met with her. Dr. Freeman had posted office hours (Tuesday 1-3 and Thursday 1-3) and encouraged students to make appointments to ...

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