In Al-Dabagh v. Case Western Reserve University, the Sixth Circuit reversed a decision ordering Case Western 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 incidents that Case Western ultimately found to be unbecoming of a doctor. He had asked his instructor to lie about his tardiness to class, inappropriately grabbed two female students during a school function, nearly got into a fistfight with the boyfriend of one of the other students, and later jumped out of a moving cab to stiff the driver of his fare. His misconduct also led to his being kicked out of a patient’s room during his internal medicine internship.  As a result of this behavior, Case Western threatened Mr. Al-Dabagh with dismissal if there were further incidents.

Unfortunately, Mr. Al-Dabagh was convicted for drunk driving just before he was to be certified for graduation.  The university then refused to issue his diploma, but said that he could withdraw without an official dismissal.  Mr. Al-Dabagh refused the offer and sued instead, claiming it had breached its state-law duties of good faith and fair dealing by declining to award him his degree.

The district court ordered the university to award Mr. Al-Dabagh his diploma, but the Sixth Circuit reversed and stripped Al-Dabagh of his diploma. The panel held that a lack-of-professionalism finding is an academic judgment that deserves significant deference from a court.  It also 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 was clear that professionalism is a part of the university’s academic curriculum. The Court therefore deferred to Case Western’s determination that Mr. Al-Dabagh’s had engaged in the unprofessional conduct and on that basis found nothing “arbitrary or capricious” about the university’s academic judgment to refuse to award a diploma.