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Student nurse challenges nursing education program accreditation

I often get questions from nursing students in education programs regarding what rights they have as a student.

The questions range from situations in which the student nurse:

  • Has been dismissed from a program
  • Has not been admitted
  • Has a grievance against a faculty member
  • Has a dispute with an academic program

In the McCabe versus Marywood University case, a nursing student filed a case against the private nursing educational program she attended for breach of contract, breach of good faith and fair dealing, violation of the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, unjust enrichment and promissory estoppel.

The trial court ruled in favor of the university. The student nurse appealed that decision.

Facts leading to lawsuit and appeal

Before 2010, the nursing program at the university the student attended was fully accredited by the National League for Nursing Accreditation Commission (NLNAC).

In the spring of 2010, the program was granted accreditation until 2018 with conditions and changes that were required within two years. If those changes were not made, the accreditation would be revoked.

As of the fall of 2010, the university continued to note on its website and in its printed documents that the program was accredited with no qualifying statements or definition of that status.

The student nurse involved in the suit began her nursing program in August 2011. In November 2011, the chair of the program informed current and prospective students by letter that the accreditation status with the Pennsylvania Board of Nursing was now provisional because of lower passing scores on the NCLEX. Two days later, the dean sent another letter making it clear the provisional status had no effect on the National League for Nursing accreditation.

However, on April 10, 2013, several weeks before the student nurse’s second-year final exams, the commission notified the university the nursing program’s accreditation had been revoked for failing to meet the required changes. All students were notified of the revocation.

Fortunately, the university appealed that decision in April 2013 and was placed on conditional accreditation with warning status. In August 2014, the commission reinstated the nursing program’s full accreditation.

The nursing student, concerned with the conditional accreditation in 2013, decided not to return to the university and transferred to another nursing education program. She filed suit against the university in 2016.

The appellate court’s decision

Four main issues were analyzed by the appellate court based on the trial court’s ruling:

  1. Did the trial court err in finding the student nurse didn’t establish a duty of the university to provide her with an education from a fully accredited nursing program?

  2. Did the trial court err in finding that the nursing student did not suffer harm because of her trust that the representations by the university were true?

  3. Did the trial court err in determining that the university was not unjustly enriched by receiving tuition from the student nurse despite its false representations and lost accreditation?

  4. Did the trial court err in dismissing the student’s claim for promissory estoppel with its misrepresentations and loss of accreditation?

As to the first issue, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision that the university did not breach its “contractual duty to provide a fully accredited nursing education.”

In so holding, the court pointed out the university nursing program was fully accredited and afforded the student the opportunity to graduate from that program and sit for the NCLEX exam in the spring of 2015.

The student’s allegations were based on “speculation as to what would have happened” if the accreditation was revoked. As such, the student failed to state a cause of action for breach of the contract between her and the university.

The court also held the student did not prove she suffered harm as a result of the university’s conduct nor under the state’s unfair trade practices statute. It emphasized the university was accredited at all times relevant to the student. Rather, the harm she experienced came from her decision to transfer schools.

The university was not unjustly enriched by the student nurse paying tuition “for a program that was not fully accredited” because the program was accredited at all times relevant to the student.

Lastly, the court upheld the trial court’s decision that the university was not stopped from denying liability on its promise to provide a fully accredited nursing program in exchange for her tuition payments.

The court equated this argument as a “re-characterization of her breach-of-contract claim” and was unsupported by sufficient evidence.

What does this case mean for you?

Any court decision is based on the facts presented concerning the allegations of a complaint. This case was decided based on its specific facts and is only applicable to cases brought in Texas.

As a result, it doesn’t stand for your inability as a nursing student from winning a filed case against a nursing education program in a private university.

However, it does point out several parameters that need to be considered. In addition to those already discussed in my earlier blogs, they include:

  • Always seek legal advice from a nurse attorney or attorney before deciding a course of action that you might later think justifies the filing of a lawsuit against a nursing education program.
  • Share with your legal counsel all factual information — documents, letters, student handbook — you possess about your legal concerns and your relationship with the nursing education program.
  • Lawsuits against nursing education programs are often difficult to win and costly.
  • Know about how nursing education programs are accredited and how your state board of nursing affects the viability of your nursing education program.

Take these courses related to student nursing:

One Size Doesn’t Fit All with Age-Specific Competencies
(1.5 contact hrs)
The Joint Commission requires that any staff member, student, or volunteer who provides care and treatment in an institution is competent to provide these services to a specific patient population. This course provides an overview of age-specific competency requirements expected of staff assigned to settings in which the patient’s age must be considered when planning and delivering nursing care.

Teaching Tomorrow’s Nurses: What’s Happening in the Classroom?
(1 contact hr)
As gatekeepers who ensure safe nursing practice, faculty members have a rich history of providing knowledge, teaching essential nursing skills and inspiring students to set high standards for patient care. Today’s faculty faces unparalleled challenges as they prepare students for increasingly complex nursing roles. Integrating new knowledge into the curriculum and using technology to enhance learning and preparing nurses to be lifelong learners offer educators opportunities to influence nursing’s future. This module discusses the innovative teaching strategies nurse educators are using to meet these challenges. It also describes the ways faculty can meet the learning needs of diverse student populations, the forces driving changes in nursing and nursing education, and the rewards and challenges of becoming a nurse educator.

Nursing CE Renewal Package — Multidisciplinary, 2019 Edition
(30 contact hrs)
This 30-contact hour course includes single- and multi-unit CE modules on a potpourri of topics representing multiple nursing specialties. No test is required and students will receive an instant certificate upon completion.

By | 2019-10-03T16:22:55+00:00 October 1st, 2019|Categories: Nursing careers and jobs, Nursing education|0 Comments

About the Author:

Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN
Our legal information columnist Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN, received her Juris Doctor from Loyola University Chicago School of Law and concentrates her solo law practice in health law and legal representation, consultation and education for healthcare professionals, school of nursing faculty and healthcare delivery facilities. Brent has conducted many seminars on legal issues in nursing and healthcare delivery across the country and has published extensively in the area of law and nursing practice. She brings more than 30 years of experience to her role of legal information columnist. Her posts are designed for educational purposes only and are not to be taken as specific legal or other advice. Individuals who need advice on a specific incident or work situation should contact a nurse attorney or attorney in their state. Visit The American Association of Nurse Attorneys website to search its attorney referral database by state.

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