Fired student loses $1M verdict after Bloomsburg University's appeal to Third Circuit

By Carrie Salls | Oct 24, 2017

PHILADELPHIA – Geisinger Medical Center, Bloomsburg University and two employees are not liable for previously awarded damages related to the firing of a nurse anesthesiology student after she refused to submit to a drug test, according to a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit opinion.

Geisinger Medical Center program director Arthur Richer, as well as Bloomsburg and its nursing chair Michelle Ficca, appealed a U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania judgment that awarded Angela Borrell more than $1 million in damages in connection with her termination from the clinical portion of the program and subsequent dismissal from the academic portion by the university.

In her lawsuit against Bloomsburg, Geisinger, Richer and Ficca, Borrell alleged the defendants violated her “due process right to a pre-deprivation hearing.”

“To determine whether an individual has received due process, courts balance three factors (the Mathews factors): (1) the interests of the individual threatened by the action; (2) the risk of erroneous deprivation of the interest because of the procedures used, and the probable value of additional procedural safeguards; and (3) the government’s interest," Leslie Kushner of Holland & Knight LLP told the Pennsylvania Record.

Leslie Kushner  

Since the court found Borrell was dismissed by an entity acting on behalf of the state, Kushner said “the district court assumed that she was entitled to, at the least, 'notice of the charges against her, an explanation of the evidence underlying the charges, and an opportunity to present her side of the story.’”

“Because the Third Circuit did not find the dismissal (from the program) a state action, it did not address this issue,” Kushner said.

As a result of its opinion, the District Court granted summary judgment in Borrell’s favor. A jury later awarded damages to Borrell.

“Essential to its holding, the district court found that GMC and Richer were state actors and that Ficca was not entitled to qualified immunity,” the Third Circuit wrote in its ruling.

However, the Third Circuit's ruling presented a different view on whether the private medical center’s rules of employment, with which students in the Bloomsburg program were required to comply, or the Commonwealth’s laws requiring a hearing prevailed in Borrell’s case.

“The record shows that Richer’s actions were authorized by Geisinger to enforce its drug and alcohol policy, and not pursued under any authority granted him by the state,” the Third Circuit wrote in its opinion. 

“Simply put, Richer did not need permission from Bloomsburg to fire a Geisinger worker who violated a hospital policy.”

In addition, the Third Circuit ruled that Ficca’s signature on the letter of termination did not validate Borrell’s claims, as Ficca was bound by the medical center's rules. 

The court said Bloomsburg dismissed Borrell from the program because her termination from the clinical program meant she could not complete her academic requirements, not because of her refusal to follow the drug-testing rule.

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Bloomsburg University Geisinger Health System U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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