Hear me out! Judicial Review of the Vice President of Northern Lakes College decision to not convene a Student Appeals Committee after the applicant was removed from his practicum program

17. March 2020 0

The applicant was a student in the Primary Care Paramedic Program. He was removed from the program by Alberta Health Services, which ran a portion of the practicum program. The applicant was subsequently removed from the academic program for failure to complete his academic requirements. He sought a hearing in front of the Student Appeal Committee. This request was rejected. He sought judicial review.

Administrative law – Decisions reviewed – University Committees – Judicial review – Application – Standard of review – Reasonableness – Universities – Student discipline.

Puittinen v. Northern Lakes College, [2020] A.J. No. 43, 2020 ABQB 4, Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, January 15, 2020, K. Feth J.

The applicant, Joseph Puittinen, sought judicial review of a decision made by the Vice President, Academic of the respondent, Northern Lakes College (“NLC”), not to convene the Student Appeals Committee for a Level Two appeal hearing into the decision that he withdraw from the Primary Care Paramedic Program (the “PCP Program”). As part of his academic program, the applicant was required to complete an ambulance practicum, which was run by Alberta Health Services (“AHS”). NLC and AHS were parties to a Student Placement Agreement, which permitted the AHS to remove a student at any time with written notice to NLC if the student’s conduct was unprofessional or demonstrated unsafe work practice. It also permitted either pay to remove or suspend a student without prior notice in its sole discretion if the health and safety of the patients was at risk.

The applicant’s practicum was unilaterally terminated by AHS without prior notice to NLC based on the “disorderly and unsanitary” state of his room, directing profanity at the manager and behaving in an aggressive an unpredictable manner towards staff. NLC then subsequently informed the applicant that he was required to withdraw from the PCP Program because he failed to meet his academic requirements by not finishing his practicum. The applicant submitted a Level One Appeal, which was denied. He then requested a Level Two Appeal, thereby requesting that the Student Appeals Committee be convened to hear his case. That request was also rejected. The applicant filed for judicial review of this decision.

The applicant argued that the decision to deny a full hearing in front of the Student Appeals Committee was unreasonable for two reasons. First, the Vice-President in fact had no discretion to not convene a Level Two Appeal. Second, even if the Vice-President had such discretion, she exercised it unreasonably.

The court rejected the applicant’s first argument. The court looked to the Student Appeals Procedure, which governed the process to be followed. It required the Vice-President to “make the decision, if appropriate, to convene the Student Appeals Committee”. The court said this language clearly conferred discretion on the Vice-President (“if appropriate”), applying basic principles of contractual interpretation. The court also rejected the applicant’s argument that the Vice-President exercised her discretion unreasonably. The court said that NLC was bound by the decision of AHS, pursuant to their contractual arrangement. The court said such an assessment was consistent with the parties obligations under the agreement and the need for NLC to uphold AHS standards. Although the court pointed to some aspects of the Vice-President’s reasoning that were illogical, these were determined to be peripheral to the “core” elements of the decision. For these reasons, the court found that the Vice-President’s decision fell within the range of reasonable outcomes.

The applicant’s application for judicial review was dismissed.

This case was digested by Adam R. Way, and first published in the LexisNexis® Harper Grey Administrative Law Netletter and the Harper Grey Administrative Law Newsletter. If you would like to discuss this case further, please contact Adam R. Way at away@harpergrey.com.

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