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Collins v. Esper

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 20, 2018



          Indira Talwani United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Michael Collins challenges an Army Board for Correction of Military Records (“ABCMR”) decision denying his request for correction of his military record to reflect that he was wrongfully disenrolled from the Army Senior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (“ROTC”) Program. Before the court are Collins' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [#24], the Secretary of the Army's (“Secretary”) Motion to Affirm ABCMR's Decision [#27], and the Secretary's Motion to Supplement the Record [#26]. For the reasons that follow, Collins' motion is ALLOWED in part and DENIED in part, and the Secretary's motions are DENIED. The decision of the ABCMR is VACATED, and this matter is REMANDED to the ABCMR so that it may promptly conduct further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

         I. Background

         A. The Army ROTC Scholarship Cadet Contract

         In September 2005, Collins signed an Army ROTC Scholarship Cadet Contract (“Contract”). Administrative Record (hereinafter “R. [page no.]”) 47 [#15]. The Contract represented an agreement between the Army and Collins for Collins to participate in the Army ROTC program. R. 40, 47.

         According to the Contract, the Army agreed to provide scholarship benefits to Collins while he attended Northeastern University, contingent upon Collins' adherence to numerous terms. Id. at 45. One term of important note is the Contract's “Full-Time Student Agreement” provision, which states:

I agree to remain a full-time student in good standing at the educational institution named above until I receive my degree. A full-time student is defined as one enrolled in sufficient academic courses to obtain sophomore, junior, and senior academic status at the end of each appropriate one-academic-year increment for the duration of the scholarship. This includes the required Army ROTC classes, which may be part of or in addition to those courses required for my degree.

Id. at 42. Moreover, the Contract provides:

I understand that I may be deemed to have failed to comply with the terms and conditions of this contract (breach of contract) regardless of whether I knew that the failure violated the contract and regardless of whether the failure was the result of an act or omission on my part made with a specific intent to avoid responsibilities under the contract.

Id. at 45.

         A cadet's failure to comply with any term of the Contract entitles the Army to initiate that cadet's disenrollment from the ROTC Program. Id. at 45. The Contract specifies certain consequences of disenrollment from the program for “breach of contractual terms or any other disenrollment criteria . . . .” Id. First, a subsection on the cadet's agreement to serve on enlisted active duty provides that the Secretary “may order me to active duty as an enlisted soldier, if I am qualified, for a period of not more than four (4) years if I fail to complete the ROTC program.” Id.[2] Another subsection states:

If I am offered the opportunity to repay my advanced educational assistance in lieu of being ordered to active duty, I will be required to reimburse the United States government through repayment of an amount of money, plus interest, equal to the entire amount of financial assistance . . . paid by the United States for my advanced education from the commencement of this contractual agreement to the date of my disenrollment or refusal to accept a commission.

Id. As between repayment and active duty, the reimbursement section further provides: “If I am disenrolled from ROTC, I understand the Secretary of the Army, or his or her designee, retains the prerogative to either order me to active duty or order monetary repayment of my scholarship benefits.” Id.

         Another subsection provides that “whether voluntarily or because of misconduct, ” a cadet's failure to begin or complete active duty or duty in reserve status would also trigger a reimbursement requirement. Id.

         A “Complete Agreement and Severability” provision appearing near the end of the Contract states, “I understand the provisions in the contract contain the only binding promises by and to both parties. This agreement controls over any conflicting advice or information that I may have received orally or in writing from Cadet Command, my [Professor of Military Science], other cadre, cadets or others regarding my obligations and agreements to the Army.” Id. at 46.

         Although the Contract provides scholarship benefits for a period of four academic years, the Contract also states that the date the education would commence was September 7, 2005, and the date of completion was May 30, 2010, id. at 40, a five-year period. Collins' signature appears at the end of the Contract. Id. at 47.

         B. Collins' Academic Program at Northeastern University through the Disenrollment Proceedings

         Collins began a five-year program at Northeastern University in September 2005. Northeastern University's five-year program allows students to engage in co-op experiences during some semesters while attending regular courses during other semesters. Compl. ¶¶ 6-7 [#1]. It also provides for an additional “middler” year beyond the traditional four-year curriculum. Id. ¶ 10. Collins' transcript reflects that he completed 18 semester hours in Fall 2005, 17 semester hours in Spring 2006, 11 semester hours in Summer 2006, 20 semester hours in Fall 2006, 12 semester hours in Spring 2007 during his Co-op, 6 semester hours in Summer 2007 during his Co-op, and 16 semester hours in Fall 2007 during his middler year. R. 48. In Spring 2008, Collins incurred grades reflecting incomplete performance and received credit for only one course, totaling four credits. R. 29.

         According to an August 2008 memorandum from Collins' Assistant Professor of Military Science to Collins, the ROTC had counseled Collins in April 2008 that he had until July 2008 to rectify any and all issues in the incomplete Spring 2008 classes, and to draft an essay on the importance of meeting all assigned tasks in a timely manner. Id. Over the summer of 2008, Collins failed to complete his American Military History class, failed to rectify the academic issues from his Spring 2008 semester, and failed to draft the required essay. Id. at 56. The August 2008 memorandum stated that unless Collins met with the Army by September 5, 2008, the Army would “initiate disenrollment action for breach of contract for failure to maintain full time student status.” Id.

         C. Disenrollment Proceedings

         The Professor of Military Science initiated a disenrollment action in November 2008. Id. at 57. A memorandum informed Collins that this action was pursuant to Army Regulation 145-1, paragraph 3-43a(16), which provides for disenrollment based on breach of contract. See Def.'s Mem. in Support of Def.'s Mot. to Affirm Ex. 1 (“Army Regulation 145-1”) [#28-1]. According to the memorandum, Collins breached his contract based on his “failure to maintain full-time student status in Spring 2008 as defined by Northeastern University.” R. 57. The memorandum stated that Collins' “official transcripts show[] you taking a total of 8 credit hours, 4 hours of which was your ROTC class. This act constitutes a breach of contract.” Id. The memorandum informed Collins of his right to request a hearing in front of a board of officers. Id.

         Collins replied to the November 2008 disenrollment memorandum by completing and returning an enclosed “Acknowledgment of Cadet” form. On that form, Collins requested a hearing at which he could personally appear and respond regarding his ...

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