In a decision issued this week, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed a lower court decision ordering Case Western Reserve University to award a diploma to a medical student who had exhibited a pattern of unprofessional behavior. Though Amir Al-Dabagh received good grades, his medical school career was marked by a number of not-so-illustrious incidents that CWRU found to be unbecoming of a doctor. There was the time Al-Dabagh asked his instructor to lie about his tardiness to class. Then there was the medical school dance where, all in one night, Al-Dabagh inappropriately grabbed two female students, nearly got into a fistfight with the boyfriend of one of them, and later jumped out of a moving cab and stiffed the driver out of a $20 fare. Al-Dabagh even had the distinction of being kicked out of the room by a patient’s family because of his demeanor, during his internal medicine internship.
CWRU’s Committee on Students threatened him at one point with dismissal if he had further issues, which he apparently didn’t—that is, until just before he was to be certified for graduation. In April 2014 he was convicted in North Carolina for drunk driving after hitting a utility pole. After that, CWRU’s Committee on Students refused to issue his diploma, but still offered him a face-saving withdrawal from the university without an official dismissal. Al-Dabagh refused the offer and sued CWRU instead, claiming it had breached its state-law duties of good faith and fair dealing by declining to award him his degree.
Al-Dabagh actually won in federal district court. CWRU was ordered to award Al-Dabagh his diploma, which it did, but appealed.
The Sixth Circuit reversed that order and stripped Al-Dabagh of his diploma. The Court held that a lack-of-professionalism finding is an academic judgment to which courts owe considerable deference to academic institutions. The Court noted that Ohio treats the relationship between a university and its students as “contractual in nature.” The terms of that contract, the Court found, were supplied by the student handbook, which made very clear that professionalism is a part of the university’s academic curriculum. The Court deferred to CWRU’s determination that Al-Dabagh’s had engaged in the unprofessional conduct (he had tried to deny most of it), and on that basis found nothing “arbitrary or capricious” about the university’s academic judgment to refuse to award a diploma.