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Janati v. University of Nevada

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 28, 2017

NIKTA JANATI, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Nikta Janati attended dental school at defendant University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Dental Medicine (UNLV). In 2013, she was suspended for a year for presenting another student's work as her own. She now brings claims against UNLV and individual faculty members contending that the investigation and hearing regarding the charges against her of academic misconduct violated her due process rights under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution and her contractual rights under UNLV's student policy manual. She also claims the investigation was initiated in retaliation for her prior complaint against a graduate faculty member, violating her First Amendment rights.

         UNLV and the individual defendants move for summary judgment, arguing that the 14th Amendment prescribes only “rudimentary” process in academic disciplinary contexts, which Janati received even under the facts as she presents them. Her contract rights in the policy manual, UNLV argues, are similarly limited to protecting against only “arbitrary and capricious” or “bad faith” conduct, and there was no such conduct here. Lastly, the defendants argue her First Amendment claims fail because there is no evidence to support retaliatory motive.

         Because courts exercise deference in applying procedural and contractual precepts to the relationship between universities and their students, Janati's claims cannot succeed. She also fails to establish all the elements of a First Amendment claim against either UNLV or the individual defendants. I therefore grant the defendants' motions for summary judgment and deny Janati's motion for partial summary judgment. I deny the motion to dismiss as moot.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Janati began her dental studies at UNLV in the fall of 2012. ECF No. 29 at 3. On June 21, 2013, she participated in a practical lab exam involving work on a tooth in a mannequin model. For this exam, each step was checked by a faculty member. Id. During the exam, a rubber dam that Janati was using broke. A recent graduate and preclinical faculty member, Justin Perdichizzi, told her to place another dam and said he would “sign [her] off.”[1] Id. at 4. Once she placed the new dam, she could not find Perdichizzi, so she had another faculty member sign her off. When Perdichizzi returned, he scolded Janati for not waiting for him to sign her off. He then “proceeded to mock and laugh” at Janati with his fellow graduate students. Id.

         Janati complained to defendant faculty member Dr. R. Michael Sanders about Perdichizzi's behavior, asserting her belief that it was “based on inappropriate comments concerning her Iranian national origin and her gender.”[2] She asked Sanders to put a stop to any further similar conduct. Id.

         On June 25, 2013, defendant Dr. Stanley Nelson assigned to his class a project that called for waxing teeth on a model. ECF No. 48 at 6. The syllabus required three teeth be waxed; Janati was absent for the June 25 lecture where Nelson added a fourth tooth to the assignment. Id. She completed the project per the syllabus with three teeth waxed by the July 2 due date. Id. A different faculty member signed it off as complete on that day, despite not having the fourth tooth waxed. Id.[3]

         The day after the tooth waxing project was submitted, Janati was working on a project in the “wet lab” that involved mounting a project on her articulator.[4] Id. Janati was approached by a fellow student, Arin Alexander, who told her that defendants Drs. Brandon Biehler and Eleni Collis were taking photographs of casts on Janati's assigned bench in an adjacent lab. Id. at 7.

         According to Janati's complaint, she interpreted the information from Alexander to mean that Biehler was looking for her tooth waxing project. ECF No. 29 at 5. Desiring to show Biehler her project, but not having an unoccupied articulator on which to mount it, she borrowed Alexander's, which still had his completed tooth waxing project mounted on it. Id. Carrying both her unmounted project and Alexander's project mounted on his articulator, she approached Biehler, who was working with another student. ECF No. 48-1 at 50. Janati set down Alexander's project on an “unassigned” bench near Biehler. Id. She returned her project to her assigned drawer and locked it. Id. at 51. She then returned to the adjacent wet lab. Id. at 52.

         Biehler left the lab, carrying the articulator and mounted project that Janati had left near him. He scanned it and determined that the articulator was registered to Alexander. ECF No. 48 at 8. Biehler returned to the lab and asked Alexander for his articulator, but Alexander could not produce it. Id. He then asked Janati for her tooth waxing project. Id. She produced her unmounted project from her drawer and gave it to him. Biehler brought both Janati's unmounted project and Alexander's mounted project on his articulator to Sanders. Biehler explained his perception that Janati had attempted to present Alexander's project as her own work. Id. Janati went to Sanders' office later that day to explain herself. According to Sanders, Janati admitted at that time “she knew the work was not hers but . . . she didn't want to show the faculty unmounted models when they asked to see her project.” ECF No. 53 at 11. Sanders informed her the matter would wait for Nelson's return from abroad.

         After Nelson returned, he, Sanders, and Janati met to discuss the incident. Nelson was unconvinced by Janati's account of what had happened and concluded she had attempted to present Alexander's work as her own. ECF No. 29 at 7-8. Sanders wrote a memorandum “complaint” on July 18, 2013 to Dr. William Davenport, the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, describing the incident and recommending that Janati's actions be reviewed by the school's Honor Council. ECF No. 48-4 at 8. His letter did not specifically name either Biehler or Collis, but described them as “two preclinical faculty” and thereafter “the faculty.” Id. Davenport forwarded the complaint to the school's Honor Council. ECF No. 29 at 9.

         Defendant Dr. Christopher Kypuros, chair of the Honor Council, decided the complaint merited further investigation. Id. On July 31, 2013, he sent Janati a letter notifying her of Sanders' complaint. Id. Based on interviews he conducted with faculty members, which he reported to the Honor Council, the Council decided to proceed to a hearing. Id. at 10.

         On September 17, 2013, Kypuros sent Janati a Notice of Formal Hearing to take place on October 8, 2013. ECF No. 48-4 at 72. The letter notified her that she was alleged to have committed “academic misconduct, ” “misrepresentation, ” and “unprofessional behavior” based on the facts contained in Sanders' July 18 complaint, which Kypuros attached. The letter also informed Janati of her rights to present witnesses, evidence, and have an attorney present at the hearing. Id. On October 1, 2013, Kypuros sent to Janati a list of witnesses who might be called to testify and documents that might be introduced at the hearing. Id. at 76. Biehler and Collis were not listed as witnesses, but the letter noted that “statements” from both might be introduced. The hearing took place on October 8. At the hearing, a written statement from Collis was read by Kypuros, but no testimony from Biehler was produced. ECF No. 48-5 at 3-21. On October 14, 2013, the Honor Council wrote a letter to defendant Dean West stating that it had held a hearing, deliberated, and unanimously voted to find that Janati had committed Honor Code violations by presenting “another student's work as her own when faculty requested to see the project.” Id. at 24.

         After the initial hearing, Dean West requested that the hearing be reconvened to include the testimony of Biehler. ECF No. 29 at 11. The hearing was reopened on October 30, 2013 and Biehler testified by telephone. Id. at 12. The Honor Council reaffirmed its finding that Janati had committed the misconduct with which she was charged. ECF No. 48-5 at 39.

         On November 13, 2013, West sent a letter to Janati notifying her that she would be temporarily suspended from school, effective immediately. ECF No. 29 at 12. The allegations supporting the suspension were that she engaged in “academic misconduct, ” “misrepresentation, ” and “unprofessional behavior” by “presenting another student's work as her own when faculty requested to see her project.” ECF No. 48-5 at 41.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Summary judgment shall be granted when “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party “has the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Pioneer Chlor Alkali Co., Inc. v. Nat'l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA, 863 F.Supp. 1237, 1239 (D. Nev. 1994) (citations omitted). “A material issue of fact is one that affects the outcome of the litigation and requires a trial to resolve the differing version of events.” Id. (citations omitted). Once the moving party satisfies its initial burden, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. (citations omitted). The non-moving party “may not ...

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