Community College Did Not Commit Age Discrimination Against Student Who Was Not Accepted To Mandatory Clinical Internships

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Nov 01, 2023

Gregory Steshenko, a student over the age of 50, enrolled in the medical laboratory technician program (MLT program) at De Anza College.  The MLT program required students to complete a six-month clinical internship to graduate.  De Anza College contracts with local clinical laboratories at hospitals and medical centers to provide internships to students in the MLT program.

The MLT program student handbook stated that securing placement in the clinical training portion of the program was a competitive process.  Students were required to interview with clinical affiliates for training positions though placement was not guaranteed.  If a clinical training facility rejected a student’s application, the MLT program director would work with the student to improve their chances.  If a student was unable to secure clinical training within two years of completing the academic portion of the MLT program, they would no longer be eligible for placement.

In May 2017, Steshenko applied to two programs and both programs rejected him.  The MLT program director, Patricia Buchner, reached out to one of the interviewers, Un Sil Lee, for feedback on Stechenko’s interview.  Lee responded that Steshenko lacked enthusiasm for working in all areas of the laboratory, such as the phlebotomy area.  Buchner relayed this to Stechenko and advised him to keep the clinical sites’ needs in mind.  Buchner invited Stechenko to participate in interview coaching, but he declined.

Stechenko wrote to Buchner that the clinical programs were mainly interested in trying to exploit the students’ phlebotomy skills without paying them.  He complained that the programs discriminated against him based on his age.

In August 2017, Steshenko filed a complaint claiming that the District discriminated against him based on age.  Lorrie Ranck, De Anza’s Associate Vice President of Instruction, responded to Steshenko that the MLT program had no power to force a clinical site to accept a student for an internship.  Ranck also told Steshenko that the District takes allegations of discrimination seriously and that his complaint was referred to the Dean of Student Development.  She told him to communicate with the Dean if he wished to pursue his discrimination claim further.

In August 2017 Steshenko applied to a third clinical program and they rejected him.  He later alleged the interviewer said, “Look around, does anyone here look like you?”  He claims that only young people staffed the laboratory.

The District notified Steshenko of other opportunities to apply for internships.  Steshenko refused to apply to other clinical placements.  He also declined to apply to placements that had a long commute and said he could no longer afford to work an unpaid internship.

Steshenko sued the District for age discrimination, breach of contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  He asked the court to award monetary damages and to force the District to allow him to graduate from the MLT program.  He argued that the clinical affiliates discriminated against him based on his age and that the District authorized or acquiesced to their discrimination.  The District denied the allegations and asked the trial court to dismiss the case, through a motion for summary judgment.

The Trial Court agreed with the District and granted the motion for summary judgment.  The Trial Court held that the District could not have committed age discrimination because there was no employment relationship between Steshenko and the District.  The Trial Court also held that the District had not breached any contract because there was no evidence that a contract existed, implied or otherwise.  The Trial Court also agreed that the District had not committed intentional infliction of emotional distress because the District had not engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct.  Steshenko appealed the decision.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the Lower Court that there was no employment relationship between Steshenko and the District.  The District did not exercise control over students’ work for the clinical affiliates and the clinical affiliates were not the District’s agents.  The Court of Appeals examined the contracts between the District and the clinical affiliates.  The contracts stated there was no relationship of agent or employee between the school and the clinical affiliates.  They also specified that clinical affiliates supervised the students and had the sole discretion to select or dismiss students.  Additionally, the District had made clear to students through the MLT handbook and other communications that the external clinical placements were competitive and not guaranteed.

The Court of Appeals rejected Steshenko’s argument that the District’s MLT program was a “training program leading to employment” as defined in California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.  The District’s MLT program prepares students to pass the educational requirement for the medical laboratory technician license, but students still need to pass other state requirements such as a state licensing exam, then seek employment independently.

The Court of Appeals held that Steshenko’s claims under Government Code and Education Code anti-discrimination statutes failed because the District had not acted with deliberate indifference to his complaint.  Ranck elevated his discrimination complaint to the Dean of Student Development and instructed Steshenko to contact the dean if he wished to pursue his complaint.  He did not.  Also, the District had reason to believe that Steshenko’s rejection from the programs had been for reasons other than age discrimination, such as not wanting to perform the phlebotomy work that the internships required.  The District attempted to help Steshenko better prepare for interviews and notified him of additional opportunities until he eventually expressed that no unpaid placement would be acceptable.

The Court of Appeals also rejected Steshenko’s argument that the District had breached an implied contract to ensure his timely graduation from the MLT program in exchange for his satisfactory performance and payment of fees.  The Court of Appeals held that this implied contract did not exist. Graduation was contingent on completing the MLT program requirements and there was no implied contract that contradicted that.

Finally, the court of appeals held that the District had not committed intentional infliction of emotional distress because the District’s conduct was not “extreme and outrageous.”  The District had no power to force the clinical programs to admit Steshenko nor to waive the requirement of practical training, which is legally required for approved educational programs leading to a medical laboratory technician license.

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case on summary judgment and rejected Steshenko’s request for a new trial.

Steshenko v. Foothill-De Anza Cmty. Coll. Dist. (July 26, 2023, No. H049871) ___Cal.App.5th___ [2023 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4330].

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