Appellant appealed from the judgment entered in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas in favor of Appellee Military Academy (“the Academy”), following the Academy‘s supplemental petition for attorneys’ fees resulting in a molded verdict and judgment in a breach of contract action. Appellee is a private, non-profit, education institution located in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Appellant is an attorney and the father of the cadet in question (“Cadet”) who enrolled as a cadet at the Academy. In the course of enrollment, the parties entered into several written agreements concerning Cadet‘s conduct and his father’s financial responsibility for payment of tuition and fees. Those agreements included a Billing and Payment Contract (“Contract”).
Two months after enrolling in the Academy, Cadet and another student were involved in activity resulting in 21 charges being lodged against them, including alcohol-related charges. The Academy told Appellant that it had conducted a disciplinary board hearing concerning Cadet‘s actions, and he received punishment including placement on the Conduct Probation List, a recommendation for dismissal pending further information, and an out-of-school suspension. The Academy also notified Appellant that “violation of any of the terms of probation will be justification for automatic dismissal.”
Six weeks later, the Academy tested Cadet for substance/alcohol abuse. That test returned a positive result for marijuana and amphetamines, constituting violations of the Academy‘s substance abuse policy as well as the conditions of Cadet‘s probationary status. Shortly after he tested positive on the drug screen, the Academy dismissed Cadet. His father appealed the decision to dismiss. The Academy rejected the appeal and provided the father with a transcript of the courses Cadet had successfully completed and for which he’d received credit.
The Academy subsequently sent the first of three statements seeking the unpaid balance of tuition and fees. When those statements went unpaid, the Academy filed a Complaint against Appellant seeking the unpaid balance. In the Complaint, the Academy alleged that Appellant was in breach of the Contract by not paying the remainder of the fees for Cadet.
The parties submitted the matter to arbitration. And the panel found in favor of the Academy. Appellant appealed this award. At trial, the Academy introduced evidence to show that Appellant signed the Contract and failed to pay the outstanding invoices.
Appellant tried to show that the summary dismissal of Cadet after the second instance of Cadet‘s violation of the substance abuse policy was improper. To accomplish this, he testified and also called another witness, a former dean of the Academy as an expert in education.
When the former dean was called to testify, the trial judge engaged in a discussion with Appellant’s counsel about the former dean‘s background and the relevance of his testimony.
After taking the stand and beginning to testify, it became clear that the witness didn’t have personal knowledge of the events concerning Cadet‘s dismissal. With this disclosure, the Academy‘s counsel moved to strike the witness. The judge agreed, opining, “so I don’t know how this gentleman can move the ball forward, so to speak, when he has no knowledge of the-of what happened….” The judge granted the Academy‘s motion to strike the former dean’s testimony.
The trial court found for the Academy and awarded damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs. Appellant submitted a Motion for Post-Trial Relief asserting several points of alleged error including that dismissal or preclusion of the former dean as a witness was improper. The motion was denied.
On appeal, Appellant raised the issue of whether the trial court erred in disqualifying the former dean as a witness due to his lack of personal knowledge where he was proffered to testify as to his knowledge and expertise regarding the Academy’s disciplinary requirements.
Appellant argued his witness had experience dealing with disciplinary procedures during his time as the Dean of Students and Title IX Coordinator at the Academy, which qualified him as an expert witness in this case. Appellant further alleged that Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 703 allows an expert witness like his to base his opinion on facts or data without personal knowledge. Appellant argued that the witness’ testimony was essential to establish that the Contract required the Academy to hold a hearing before expulsion and reasonably decide that Cadet‘s actions interfered with the Academy‘s mission. Appellant argued that the trial court erred in excluding Appellant’s witness, and the Court should reverse and remand for a new trial.
President Judge Emeritus, Susan Peikes Gantman noted in her opinion that Appellant called his expert to testify that the Academy‘s disciplinary actions regarding Cadet‘s dismissal, particularly the lack of a hearing, were unusual and improper. After he took the stand and began to testify, the expert revealed his lack of involvement in, and personal knowledge of, the events surrounding Cadet‘s dismissal. The Academy moved to strike him as a witness, and the court agreed. While Appellant later claimed he called the former dean as an “expert” witness, the record showed otherwise. Rather, Appellant called the former dean as a lay or fact witness.
As a lay witness, Judge Gantman held that he was limited to testifying about information “rationally based on [his] perception.” Thus, the court properly precluded the former dean’s testimony upon realizing he had no direct knowledge of what had occurred regarding Cadet‘s dismissal.