News / Canada

Grad suing Western University for $11M over ‘substandard’ medical residency

UWO graduate is suing the school for failing to give him the education needed to pass the medical microbiology exam.

Dr. James Ian Stuart is suing Western University for breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty, alleging that the poor quality of its residency program cost him his dream of becoming a medical microbiologist.

RENE JOHNSTON / Torstar News Service Order this photo

Dr. James Ian Stuart is suing Western University for breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty, alleging that the poor quality of its residency program cost him his dream of becoming a medical microbiologist.

A Western University graduate is suing the London school for $11 million, alleging that the poor quality of its residency program cost him his dream of becoming a medical microbiologist.

James Stuart alleges that the Schulich School of Medicine provided “substandard education” in its post-graduate medical training, causing him to fail the medical microbiologist qualifying exam three times, according to the statement of claim filed in court.

The 42-year-old is suing for breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty.

“Dr. Stuart has been deprived of his livelihood and career potential in medicine, has lost his competitive advantage and suffered emotional distress, humiliation and anguish,” says the statement of claim.

Stuart was insufficiently supervised and infrequently tested, and key faculty members quit during his five years as a post-graduate resident, the court document states. By the time he was in his third year as a resident, Stuart was the only one left in the medical microbiology specialist program.

The program is now inactive and has accepted no students since Stuart completed it, the statement says.

The claims have not been proven in court.

The university, formerly known as the University of Western Ontario (UWO), has not filed a statement of defence and does not comment on ongoing litigation, Alexander Pettingill, a Toronto lawyer and the university counsel, wrote in an email.

Western is seeking permission to appeal a November ruling by Superior Court Justice E.M. Morgan that gave Stuart permission to proceed with the lawsuit, calling the decision “inconsistent with the manner in which the law has developed in this area.”

“The pith and substance of the plaintiff’s claim, which consists of complaints regarding the implementation and organization of the residency program, are academic decisions within the discretion of universities,” reads Western’s notice of motion for leave to appeal.

“The (court) decision suggests that any disappointed student who fails to obtain a professional licence or accreditation (a law student, for example, who failed the bar exam) can sue his or her university for failure to educate.”

Michael Miller, a veteran Bay Street litigator representing Stuart, said Canadian case law is clear that “you can’t sue universities because … you got a D, or an F.”

But that is not what this lawsuit is about, Miller said Wednesday.

“In this case, we’re not arguing about a mark. We’re saying UWO didn’t deliver a program.”

The judge, who called the claim “a relatively novel one for a novel situation,” made that distinction in his November ruling, Miller noted.

“The defendant’s program was in the process of falling apart around the plaintiff, and the action alleges that what remained was really no educational program whatsoever,” the judge wrote.

“The failure and ultimate disappearance of an entire course of study is, with all due respect to the defendant and its counsel, in a qualitatively different category than the appeal of a single failing grade.”

The judge added it was “incumbent on the court at this stage to read the pleading in a light that is generous to the plaintiff.”

Stuart, interviewed with Miller in his downtown law office, said he was a good student who has three degrees: a bachelor of science, for which he earned a gold medal for high marks, a bachelor of engineering science and a medical doctorate received from Western in 2007.

Hoping to follow his father into the specialized field, Stuart was accepted into Western’s medical microbiology residency program, but became trapped in the residency program while it “collapsed around him.” Stuart said he trusted the assurances of administrators that “things would improve.”

“It’s hard to complain to the microbiologists to say, ‘Hey, you’re not teaching me’ when you’re the only resident. There’s a power differential and people can make life very difficult,” he said.

The university certified that Stuart had successfully completed his residency training, allowing him to take the specialty qualifying exam in medical microbiology offered by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.

He wrote and failed it on three occasions — the latter two times, in May 2013 and May 2014, while working as a clinical fellow at Western.

“If they don’t supply you with the essential components … how do you go and write an exam?” he asked.

The stress took a toll and cost Stuart his marriage, he said. He was out of work for 18 months, finding himself “overqualified for many positions.”

As a “testament” to his abilities to study independently, Stuart passed the Canadian College of Microbiologists exam and is currently working as a clinical microbiologist. He makes much less money than he would as a licensed medical microbiologist, a role he describes as “a physician’s physician.”

Fighting a lawsuit, with the financial help of his parents, has brought additional strain, particularly as Western has unsuccessfully tried to have the lawsuit thrown out three times, he said.

But he’s undeterred.

“I don’t want another student to go through what I went through. And, really, it’s a David-and-Goliath type of story.”

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