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Page v. Hicks

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

February 12, 2018

ASHLEY WILCOX PAGE, Plaintiff,
v.
TODD L. HICKS, NNA, CRNA; et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Ashley Wilcox Page, a former student in the University of Alabama at Birmingham's (“UAB”) School of Nursing Anesthesia Program, filed suit against Todd Hicks, Susan McMullan, Peter Tofani, and the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama, alleging that they wrongfully dismissed her from the Program. (Doc. 25). In Counts 1 and 2, Ms. Page raises due process claims against the Board of Trustees and all three individual defendants in their official and individual capacities; in Count 3, Ms. Page asserts a negligence claim against Mr. Hicks and Ms. McMullan in their official and individual capacities; in Count 4, Ms. Page presents a negligence claim against Ms. McMullan in her official and individual capacities; and in Count 5, Ms. Page pleads a negligence claim against Mr. Tofani in his official and individual capacities. (Id.). In the federal due process claims, she seeks monetary damages and injunctive relief, and in the state law negligence claims, she seeks only monetary damages.

         Defendants move to dismiss the amended complaint, asserting that they are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, sovereign immunity, state agent immunity, and qualified immunity, and in the alternative, that the amended complaint fails to state a federal claim. (Doc. 26). The court WILL GRANT Defendants' motion to dismiss and WILL DISMISS the amended complaint.

         The court finds that the Board of Trustees is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, so the court WILL DISMISS WITHOUT PREJUDICE the Board of Trustees as a defendant.

         The court finds that the individual defendants in their official capacities are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity from the federal claims seeking monetary damages, but that under the Ex parte Young doctrine, they are not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity from the federal claims seeking injunctive relief. Although the court finds that the individual defendants are not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity from the federal claims seeking injunctive relief, the court finds that Ms. Page fails to state a procedural or substantive due process claim. As a result, the court WILL DISMISS WITHOUT PREJUDICE the federal claims raised against the individual defendants in their official capacities seeking monetary damages, and WILL DISMISS WITH PREJUDICE the federal claims raised against the individual defendants in their official capacities seeking injunctive relief.

         The court also finds that the individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity from the federal claims seeking monetary damages from them in their individual capacities because Ms. Page's allegations fails to establish a constitutional violation. The court WILL DISMISS WITH PREJUDICE the federal claims raised against the individual defendants in their individual capacities.

         Finally, in light of the court's dismissal of all of the federal claims, the court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims. The court WILL DISMISS WITHOUT PREJUDICE Counts 3, 4, and 5 for lack of jurisdiction.

         I. BACKGROUND

         At the motion to dismiss stage, the court must accept as true the allegations in the complaint and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Butler v. Sheriff of Palm Beach Cty., 685 F.3d 1261, 1265 (11th Cir. 2012); Stalley v. Orlando Reg'l Healthcare Sys., 524 F.3d 1229, 1232-33 (11th Cir. 2008). Taken in that light, in August 2014, Ms. Page enrolled as a student at the UAB's School of Nursing Anesthesia Program. (Doc. 25 at 3). In August 2016, she began a clinical rotation at Baptist South Hospital in Montgomery, Alabama. (Id.).

         Apparently, between August 18 and August 25, 2016, during Ms. Page's clinical rotation, three evaluators filled out negative evaluations about her performance. (Id. at 3, 9). Ms. Page contends that one of the evaluations was not actually about her, but about a different nursing student. (Id. at 5, 10). Assistant Professor Todd Hicks received the three negative clinical evaluations about Ms. Page and he sent them to the Director of the Nurse Anesthesia Program, Susan McMullan. (See Id. at 4-5, 9). On August 28, 2016, Ms. McMullan emailed Ms. Page instructing her to attend a meeting with several UAB employees, including herself and the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, Peter Tofani. (See Id. at 6).

         The meeting took place on August 29, 2016. (Id. at 5). At the meeting, Ms. McMullan gave Ms. Page the three evaluations, told her that she “would not be allowed to continue in the Program as an unsafe nurse, ” and informed her that she “was dismissed from the UAB School of Nursing Anesthesia program effective immediately.” (Id. at 5-6). According to Ms. Page, Ms. McMullan made the “unilateral decision” to dismiss her. (Id. at 12). Mr. Tofani gave Ms. Page a business card and asked her to call him when she was ready to learn about her options to appeal the dismissal. (Id. at 5-6).

         In September 2016, Ms. Page attended a meeting with Mr. Tofani and another UAB employee. (Id. at 7). At that meeting, Mr. Tofani told Ms. Page that she had been dismissed from the program for safety reasons, but also stated that she was still a student, she had received a failing grade, and she would be dismissed at the end of the semester. (Id. at 7-8). He told her that she would not be reinstated. (Id.).

         For several months after the August meeting, Ms. Page continued to correspond and meet with UAB administrators about her dismissal. (Id. at 8-13). Different administrators told Ms. Page that she had or had not yet been dismissed from school, and that she could follow the academic misconduct grievance procedure or the student academic complaint process described in the School of Nursing Handbook. (Id. at 8-10). On December 7, 2016, the School convened a grievance hearing panel to consider Ms. Page's challenge to her dismissal. (Id. at 12). Ms. Page's attorney was present, but not allowed to speak; most of the witnesses that Ms. Page requested did not attend; and Ms. Page was not allowed to present testimony from those missing witnesses. (Id. at 12-13). On December 19, 2016, the Dean of the School of Nursing sent Ms. Page a letter stating that she was “dismissed from the Nurse Anesthesia specialty track of the MSN program.” (Id. at 13-14).

         Ms. Page filed suit against Mr. Hicks, Ms. McMullan, Mr. Tofani, and the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama, [1] asserting the following federal counts: (1) Defendants deprived her of due process, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, by dismissing her without following School of Nursing's requirements for dismissing a student (“Count 1”); and (2) Defendants deprived her of due process, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, by dismissing her intentionally, willfully, negligently, maliciously, with deliberate indifference, and/or with a reckless disregard for the natural and probable consequences of their act (“Count 2”). (Doc. 25 at 14-17). For those counts, she seeks monetary damages and injunctive relief in the form of reinstatement as a student. (Id.).

         Ms. Page also asserts the following state law negligence claims against the individual defendants: (1) negligence by Mr. Hicks and Ms. McMullan for using a different student's clinical evaluation as grounds to dismiss Ms. Page from the school (“Count 3”); (2) negligence by Ms. McMullan for failing to follow the School of Nursing's procedures for dismissing a student (“Count 4”); and (3) negligence by Mr. Tofani for failing to follow the School of Nursing's procedures for dismissing a student (“Count 5”). (Id. at 14-20). For those counts, she seeks only monetary damages.[2] (Id. at 20-21).

         Ms. Page initially filed suit in state court. (Doc. 1-1). Defendants removed the case to federal court, (doc. 1), and then moved to dismiss the amended complaint for lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim, (doc. 26).

         II. DISCUSSION

         Defendants move to dismiss the amended complaint on various immunity grounds under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). (Doc. 26 at 7-20, 26-30). In the alternative, they move, under Rule 12(b)(6), to dismiss Counts 1 and 2-the federal counts-for failure to state a claim. (Id. at 20-26).

         Rule 12(b)(1) permits a district court to dismiss for “lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Rule 12(b)(6) permits a district court to dismiss “for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

         Before addressing the motion to dismiss, the court must clarify some preliminary matters about the amended complaint. First, the two federal counts, Counts 1 and 2, each refer vaguely to “due process” violations. (See Doc. 25 at 14-17). Such a vague assertion of “due process” violations does not state a recognizable cause of action. However, because Ms. Page seeks both monetary damages and equitable relief in the form of reinstatement, the court construes her amended complaint in the light most favorable to her, and assumes that she raises both procedural and substantive due process claims. See McKinney v. Pate, 20 F.3d 1550, 1557 (11th Cir. 1994) (en banc) (“In substantive due process cases, the claimant seeks compensatory damages for the value of the deprived right. In procedural due process cases, however, although the claimant may seek compensatory damages, the primary relief sought is equitable . . . .”).

         The court construes Count 1 to raise a procedural due process claim because the claim is based on Defendants' alleged failure to give Ms. Page proper notice and an opportunity to be heard before dismissing her from the Program. (See Id. at 15). The court construes Count 2 to raise a substantive due process claim because the claim is based on Defendants' actions that Ms. Page alleges were intentional, willful, negligent, malicious, deliberately indifferent, and taken with “reckless disregard for the natural and probable consequences of their act.” (See Id. at 16).

         In addition, Count 1 appears to be a freestanding due process claim, while Count 2 is a § 1983 process claim. (Id. at 14, 16). But “[w]here a statute provides an adequate remedy, [the court] will not imply a judicially created cause of action directly under the Constitution.” GeorgiaCarry.Org v. Georgia, 687 F.3d 1244, 1254 n.15 (11th Cir. 2012). Section 1983 provides a cause of action for “the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. As a result, the court “will not imply a judicially created” freestanding due process claim, but will instead construe Count 1 as a § 1983 due process claim. See Anderson v. Edwards, 505 F.Supp. 1043, 1045 (S.D. Ala. 1981) (“[N]o claim exists under the first and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution because no implied cause of action exists under those amendments. Instead, where rights granted by the first or fourteenth amendments are violated a plaintiff must vindicate those rights through 42 U.S.C. s 1983.”).

         Finally, the amended complaint does not indicate whether the claims are against the individual defendants in their official or individual capacities. (See generally Doc. 25 at 14-20). Ms. Page states in her response to the motion to dismiss that she intended for each count to be against the individual defendants in both capacities. (Doc. 28 at 21). “In many cases, the complaint will not clearly specify whether officials are sued personally, in their official capacity, or both. The course of proceedings in such cases typically will indicate the nature of the liability sought to be imposed.” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 167 n.14 (1985) (quotation marks omitted). The amended complaint seeks monetary damages for all of the claims, and also seeks injunctive relief in the form of reinstatement as a student for the federal claims. (Doc. 25 at 14- 21).

         Assuming that no immunity bars any of the claims, Ms. Page could obtain the injunctive relief she seeks from the individual defendants in their official capacities, but she could not obtain the injunctive relief she seeks from the individual defendants in their individual capacities. See Ingle v. Adkins, __ So.3d __, 2017 WL 5185288, at *2 (Ala. 2017) (“[A] suit for injunctive relief against a State official in his or her individual capacity would be meaningless. This is so, because State officials act for and represent the State only in their official capacities.”) (quoting Ex parte Dickson, 46 So.3d 468, 474 (Ala. 2010)) (emphasis in original). As a result, the court will not construe Counts 1 and 2-the only counts in which Ms. Page seeks injunctive relief-to assert claims for injunctive relief against the individual defendants in their individual capacities.

         In summary, the court construes the amended complaint to raise the following claims against the following defendants:

• Counts 1 and 2 (§ 1983 procedural and substantive due process claims): seeking monetary damages and reinstatement from the Board of Trustees; seeking monetary damages and reinstatement from the individual defendants in their official capacities; and seeking only monetary damages from the individual defendants in their individual capacities
• Count 3 (negligence claim): seeking monetary damages from Mr. Hicks and Ms. McMullan in their official and individual capacities
• Count 4 (negligence claim): seeking monetary damages from Ms. McMullan in her official and individual capacities
• Count 5 (negligence claim): seeking monetary damages from Mr. Tofani in his official ...

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