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Boglin v. Board of Trustees of Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

February 6, 2018




         Deborah Boglin brings a single First Amendment retaliation claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (Alabama A&M); Alabama A&M's Board of Trustees; each individual member of the Board of Trustees, in both their official and individual capacities; and Yvette Clayton, the Director of Career Development Services (CDS) at Alabama A&M, in both her official and individual capacity. The Defendants have now filed a motion to dismiss, doc. 19, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure asserting Eleventh Amendment immunity and arguing that Boglin has failed to plead a plausible First Amendment retaliation claim. That motion is now fully briefed, docs. 20 and 27, and ripe for decision.[1] After carefully reviewing the parties' excellent briefs, the applicable law, and the complaint, the court finds that the Defendants' motion is due to be granted. The court will allow Boglin an opportunity, however, to replead her claims against Clayton and her individual capacity claims against the board.


         Typically, immunity issues are construed as challenges to the subject-matter jurisdiction of a federal court properly raised under Rule 12(b)(1), at least where, as here, the jurisdictional challenge does not implicate the underlying merits of the case. See Garrett v. Talladega Cty. Drug & Violent Crime Task Force, 983 F.Supp.2d 1369, 1373 (N.D. Ala. 2013); Harris v. Bd. of Trs. Univ. of Ala., 846 F.Supp.2d 1223, 1231 (N.D. Ala. 2012). A 12(b)(1) challenge may take the form of a facial or factual attack on the complaint. McElmurray v. Consol. Gov't of Augusta-Richmond Cty., 501 F.3d 1244, 1251 (11th Cir. 2007). A facial attack “‘require[s] the court merely to look and see if [the] plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a basis of subject matter jurisdiction, and the allegations in [her] complaint are taken as true for the purposes of the motion.'” Id. (quoting Lawrence v. Dunbar, 919 F.2d 1525, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)). On the other hand, a factual attack challenges “‘the existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact, irrespective of the pleadings, and matters outside the pleadings . . . are considered.'” Id. (quoting Lawrence, 919 F.2d at 1529). In such an instance, the court may hear conflicting evidence and decide the factual issues bearing on jurisdiction. Colonial Pipeline Co. v. Collins, 921 F.2d 1237, 1243 (11th Cir. 1991). In their initial brief, the Defendants do not reference the existence of any facts beyond the pleadings bearing on this court's jurisdiction. Accordingly, the court construes the Defendants' 12(b)(1) motion as a facial attack.[2]

         In addition to meeting this court's jurisdictional requirements, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires a pleading to contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” “[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Mere “‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action'” are insufficient. Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits dismissal when a complaint fails to comply with Rule 8(a)(2) or does not otherwise state a claim upon which relief can be granted. When evaluating a motion brought under Rule 12(b)(6), the court accepts “the allegations in the complaint as true and constru[es] them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Hunt v. Aimco Props., L.P., 814 F.3d 1213, 1221 (11th Cir. 2016). However, “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must . . . ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A complaint states a facially plausible claim for relief “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. In other words, the complaint must establish “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (emphasizing that “[f]actual allegations [included in the complaint] must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level”). Ultimately, the line between possibility and plausibility is a thin one, and making this determination is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         III. FACTS

         Boglin worked as a senior secretary for CDS at Alabama A&M. Doc. 1 at 3. In this position, she had no supervisory duties and instead provided general office assistance to the department. Id. In October 2014, Boglin learned that other CDS employees, including her direct supervisor Yvette Clayton, were, among other things, manipulating Alabama A&M's leave system and following improper reimbursement procedures for grants and contract work. Id. As part of her ordinary office responsibilities, Boglin processed various requisition requests and other forms reflecting these improper practices. Id. Boglin also alleges that Clayton asked her to sign off on purportedly fraudulent reimbursement requests even though this task was beyond the ordinary scope of Boglin's duties. Id. at 4.

         Concerned by this conduct, Boglin showed some of the improperly completed documents to another CDS employee. Id. She also twice verbally reported the issues in CDS to Alabama A&M's Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Bennie McMorris. Id. When Clayton learned about the reports to Dr. McMorris, she retaliated by verbally humiliating Boglin, treating Boglin more harshly than other CDS employees, and, ultimately, by discharging Boglin. Id. As a result, Boglin filed this lawsuit alleging that she was retailed against in violation of the First Amendment.


         In their motion to dismiss, the Defendants argue that (1) Boglin's claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment (except for the individual capacity claims against Clayton and the Alabama A&M board members); and (2) that Boglin has failed to allege sufficient facts to plausibly state a claim for retaliation under the First Amendment. The court will address each argument in turn.

         A. Eleventh Amendment Immunity

         “‘The Eleventh Amendment prohibits a federal court from exercising jurisdiction over a lawsuit against a state, except where the state has consented to be sued or waived its immunity, or where Congress has overridden the state's immunity.'” Cross v. Ala. Dep't of Mental Health & Mental Retardation, 49 F.3d 1490, 1502 (11th Cir. 1995) (quoting Lassiter v. Ala. A&M Univ., Bd. of Trs., 3 F.3d 1482, 1485 (11th Cir. 1993) rev'd on other grounds 28 F.3d 1146 (11th Cir. 1994)). Here, neither exception applies since Alabama has not waived its immunity, Alabama A&M University v. Jones, 895 So.2d 867, 873 (Ala. 2004), and § 1983 does not represent an abrogation of the Eleventh Amendment. See Carr v. City of Florence, 916 F.2d 1521, 1525 (11th Cir. 1990). Thus, “[t]o receive Eleventh Amendment immunity, [the] defendant[s] . . . need only be acting as . . . ‘arm[s] of the State, ' which includes [the State's] agents and instrumentalities.” Manders v. Lee, 338 F.3d 1304, 1308 (11th Cir. 2003). Significantly, “[t]his jurisdictional bar applies regardless of the nature of the relief sought.” Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 101 (1984). In other words, the state, along with its agents and instrumentalities, is immune from suit in federal court regardless of whether the plaintiff is seeking legal or equitable relief. See id.

         However, the Supreme Court's decision in Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908) provides a narrow exception to this general rule when a “suit alleg[es] a violation of the federal constitution against a state official in [her] official capacity for injunctive relief on a prospective basis.” Grizzle v. Kemp, 634 F.3d 1314, 1319 (11th Cir. 2011). To determine whether a suit falls within the Ex parte Young exception for prospective relief, “a court need only conduct a ‘straightforward inquiry into whether [the] complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective.'” Verizon ...

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