Student wins $1.7M for dental school dismissal

2008 08 29 15 39 44 564 Justice Scale 70

A former University of Michigan School of Dentistry student was awarded $1.7 million this week after a federal jury decided she was unfairly dismissed from the school in 2005.

Alissa Zwick was the victim of infighting between faculty members and the school's associate dean, Marilyn Lantz, D.M.D., stated Zwick's attorney Deborah Gordon in an interview with DrBicuspid.com.

During her second year of dental school, Zwick was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and the school recommended that she should take her practical examinations in a separate room without any noise and distractions, according to a complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

The two professors in charge of the exams -- Ken Stoffers, D.M.D., and Merle Jaarda, D.D.S. -- questioned this recommendation.

Dr. Lantz had a longstanding personal dispute with these professors, Gordon said.

"Lantz used Stoffers' and Jaarda's resistance to the Plaintiff's (Zwick) need for an accommodation against them as part of her effort to force them out of their positions," the complaint states.

Under pressure from Dr. Lantz, the professors resigned. Faculty and students protested the resignations vehemently, blaming Zwick, according to Gordon. "The students thought Alissa was at fault and she was shunned," she said.

Dr. Lantz and the school administration encouraged this view, according to the complaint. In fact, Dr. Lantz tried to silence Zwick when she attempted to clear her name.

Zwick was consequently targeted for "less favorable treatment than similarly situated classmates" and became a victim of grade tampering, the complaint states.

During Zwick's third year, Dr. Lantz gathered letters from professors who were critical of her performance in clinic and expressed that she was not capable of the "independent practice of dentistry."

The school ultimately dismissed Zwick for reasons Gordon called "vague" and "weak." For example, Gordon disregarded the claim that Zwick was nervous in clinic and noted that her client was actually averaging a B in clinic.

"She was admitted to eight dental schools, including NYU and Columbia," Gordan added. "She's a very bright girl."

Ultimately, the school failed to make a careful, deliberate, and unbiased decision about Zwick's dismissal during the appeals process, the complaint concludes.

"Instead, they rubber-stamped Lantz's ... bad faith decision to dismiss Plaintiff (Zwick) for retaliatory reasons unrelated to her academic performance," the complaint states.

Requests for a comment from Dr. Lantz were directed to Kelly Cunningham, a university spokesperson. Cunningham said in a written statement to DrBicuspid.com that the school was disappointed with the verdict.

"The University has a responsibility to exercise careful and deliberate judgment about who should be permitted to graduate from its professional schools and practice in the health care professions," Cunningham wrote. "It is essential that we maintain control over academic decision-making, and we stand firm in that position despite yesterday's [Tuesday's] outcome."

Zwick is currently pursuing a master's degree in speech pathology from Eastern Michigan University. She was unable to get into another dental school after her dismissal.

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