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Chenari v. George Washington University

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

February 10, 2017

Sina Chenari, Appellant
George Washington University, Appellee

          Argued January 11, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:14-cv-00929)

          Jason J. Bach argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant. Tracy D. Rezvani entered an appearance.

          Nicholas S. McConnell argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief was James N. Markels.

          Before: Tatel, Millett, and Wilkins, Circuit Judges.


          Tatel, Circuit Judge.

         After George Washington University Medical School expelled appellant for cheating on an exam, he brought suit in federal court for breach of contract and discrimination based on disability. The district court granted summary judgment to the University, deferring to its view that appellant broke its honor code and finding no violation of the relevant disability statutes. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm.


         On December 14, 2012, appellant Sina Chenari, a third-year medical student at George Washington University, took the Step 1 Surgery Shelf Exam, a standardized test published by the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME). Before the exam, the proctor read aloud the instructions from NBME's official Chief Proctor's Manual, including that students must complete the exam in two and a half hours and that "[n]o additional time [would] be allowed for transferring answers" from the test booklet to the answer sheet. Chenari also received a copy of the "Exam Guidelines, " which contained a similar warning.

         In his deposition, Chenari explained that when the proctor called time, he discovered that he had failed to transfer some twenty or thirty answers from the test booklet to the front side of the answer sheet. According to Chenari, he "panicked" and "continued to transfer my answers." Chenari Dep. 267:7-:9. The proctor "asked me to stop, " but "I continued to bubble in [the answer sheet]." Id. at 269:6-:18. When the proctor then "reached over me to try to get the exam, I just put my hand over the booklet and the exam and just continued to bubble in my answers." Id. at 270:3-:6. Once Chenari finished, he "sat back" and the proctor "picked [the exam] up." Id. at 278:21-280:11. As Chenari concedes, he ended up taking an additional "90 seconds to two minutes." Id. at 271:12-:13.

         The proctor reported Chenari to the medical school's administration, as did another student present at the exam. In response, Associate Dean for Students Rhonda Goldberg met with Chenari to discuss the incident. According to Goldberg's deposition, Chenari told her that he "needed to" finish bubbling in his answers but "probably made a mistake" by doing so. Goldberg Dep. 23:1-:3.

         Pursuant to University procedures, Goldberg formed an Honor Code Council subcommittee to investigate. After holding a hearing, the subcommittee issued a report recommending Chenari's dismissal for academic dishonesty. The subcommittee forwarded its recommendation to the Medical Student Evaluation Committee, and in a written statement to that Committee Chenari took responsibility for his "deplorable behavior" toward the proctor, acknowledging his "clear violation of the most basic rules of th[e] University." Chenari Dep. Ex. 37 at 1. He nonetheless asked for leniency because, he insisted, his "behavior did not involve deception" and he had no prior disciplinary infractions. Id. After a hearing, the Committee unanimously recommended Chenari's dismissal. The Medical School Dean then reviewed the reports, met with Chenari, and upheld the recommendation of dismissal. Now represented by counsel, Chenari appealed to the Provost, arguing in a written submission that his conduct lacked "an element of deceit" like "cheat[ing]" or "l[ying]." Chenari Dep. Ex. 40 at 1. Rather, his "mistake" was "completely out in the open." Id. at 2. The Provost denied the appeal, and the University dismissed Chenari from the medical school.

         On May 30, 2014, Chenari filed this action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking reinstatement and damages. He alleged several theories of relief. First, he argued that he never violated the University's Honor Code, so the University's decision to dismiss him breached its contract with him and the contract's implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Second, he claimed that he has a disability, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which he alleged the University failed to accommodate in violation of the Rehabilitation Act ("Rehab Act"), 29 U.S.C. § 794(a), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12132. Although Chenari also claimed that he suffered from anxiety, he never argued, either here or in the district court, that his anxiety qualified as a disability under the disability statutes. See Adams v. Rice, 531 F.3d 936, 943 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (describing "disability" as a "term of art under the statute[s]"). Finally, Chenari argued that the University discriminated against him for his ADHD and retaliated against him "when ...

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