890 F2D 484 1st Cir. (1989)





    This consolidated appeal arises from the stormy relationship between Sharon L. Russell ("Russell") and Salve Regina College of Newport, Rhode Island ("Salve Regina" or "the College"), which Russell attended from 1982 to 1985. The United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island, Ronald R. Lagueux, District Judge, entered a directed verdict for Salve Regina on Russell's claims of invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress at the close of plaintiff's case-in-chief, but allowed Russell's breach of contract claim to go to the jury. The jury found that Salve Regina had breached its contract with Russell by expelling her. The court entered judgment on the verdict, denying Salve Regina's motions for judgment n.o.v. and for a new trial. The court also denied Salve Regina's motion for remittitur of the damages of $30,513.40 plus interest, a total of $43,903.45, that the jury awarded Russell.


By all accounts, Sharon Russell was an extremely overweight young woman. In her application for admission to Salve Regina, Russell stated her weight as 280 pounds. The College apparently did not consider her condition a problem at that time, as it accepted her under an early admissions plan. From the start, Russel.1 made it clear that her goal was admission to the College's Nursing Department.


Russell completed her freshman year without significant incident and was accepted in the College's Nursing Department starting in her sophomore year, 1983-84. Her trauma started then. The year began on a sour note when a school administrator told Russell in public that they would have trouble finding a nurse's uniform to fit her. Later, during a class on how to make beds occupied by patients, the instructor had Russell serve as the patient, reasoning aloud that if the students could make a bed occupied by Russell, who weighed over 300 pounds, they would have no problem with real patients. The same instructor used Russell in similar fashion for demonstrations on injections and the taking of blood pressure.


The start of Russell's junior year, 1984-85, coincides with the time school officials began to pressure her directly to lose weight. In the first semester, they tried to get Russell. to sign a "contract" stating that she would attend Weight Watchers and to prove it by submitting an attendance record. Russell offered to try to attend weekly, but refused to sign a written promise. Apparently, she did go to Weight Watchers regularly, but did not lose significant weight. One of Russell's clinical instructors gave her a failing grade in the first semester for reasons which, the jury found, were related to her weight rather than her performance.


According to the rules of the Nursing Department, failure in a clinical course generally entailed expulsion from the program. But school officials offered Russell a deal, whereby she would sign a "contract" similar to the one she rejected earlier, with the additional provision that she needed to lose at least two pounds per week to remain in good standing. The "contract" provided that the penalty for failure would be immediate withdrawal from the program. Confronting the choice of signing the agreement or being expelled, Russell signed.


Russell apparently lived up to the terms of the "contract" during the second semester by attending Weight Watchers weekly and submitting proof of' attendance, but she failed to lose two pounds per week steadily. She was nevertheless allowed to complete her junior year. During the following summer, however, Russell did not maintain satisfactory contact with College officials regarding her efforts, nor did she lose any additional weight. She was asked to withdraw from the nursing program voluntarily and she did so. She transferred to a program at another school. Since that program had a two year residency requirement, Russell had to repeat her junior year, causing her nursing education to run five years rather than the usual four. Russell completed her education successfully in 1987 and is now a registered nurse.


Soon after her departure from Salve Regina, she commenced the instant action which led to this appeal.


Russell's breach of contract claim is the only one the district court submitted to the jury. The College does not dispute that a student-college relationship is essentially a contractual one. Rather, it challenges the court's jury charge regarding the terms of the contract and the duties of the parties.


From the various catalogs, manuals, handbooks, etc., that form the contract between student and institution, the district court, in its jury charge, boiled the agreement between the parties down to one in which Russell oil the one hand was required to abide by disciplinary rules, pay tuition and maintain good academic standing, and the College on the other hand was required to provide her with an education until graduation. The court informed the jury that the agreement was modified by the « contract » the parties signed during Russell’s junior year. The jury was told that, if Russell « substantially performed » her side of the bargain, the College’s actions constituted a breach.


In this case of first impression, the district court held that the Supreme Court would apply the substantial performance contract in question. In view of the customary appellate deference accorded to interpretations of state law made by federal judges of that Sate, we hold that the district court's determination that the Rhode Island Supreme Court would apply standard contract principles is not reversible error. [The district court judgment is affirmed.]