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Sadeghian v. University of South Alabama

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

December 4, 2018

REZA SADEGHIAN, M.D., Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH ALABAMA, et al., Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          SONJA F. BIVINS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This case is before the Court on Defendants University of South Alabama (“South”), Dr. Franklin Trimm (“Trimm”), and Dr. Sophia Goslings' (“Goslings”) Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint.[1](Doc. 20). This motion, which has been fully briefed and is ripe for resolution, has been referred to the undersigned for a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 72.2(c). Upon consideration of all matters presented, the undersigned RECOMMENDS, for the reasons stated herein, that Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 20) be granted in part and denied in part, as set forth below.

         I. Background Facts[2]

         Plaintiff Dr. Reza Sadeghian (“Sadeghian” or “Plaintiff”) commenced this action on January 12, 2018. (Doc. 1). In Plaintiff's amended complaint filed on March 7, 2018, Plaintiff asserts the following claims against Defendants: a petition for a writ of mandamus (Count I) against Trimm and South; a Title IX gender discrimination/sexual harassment claim (Count Two) against Goslings, Trimm, and South; a § 1983 equal protection claim (Count Three) against Goslings, Trimm, and South; and a Title IX retaliation claim against Trimm (Count Four). (Doc. 17 at ¶¶ 17-39; Doc. 17 at 12 ¶3).

         According to Plaintiff, on July 1, 2014, he entered into a contract with South to work and train in South's Pediatric Residency Program (hereinafter “the Program”). (Doc. 17 at ¶11). The parties renewed the contract annually for three years until Plaintiff's completion of the Program in June 2017. (Id.).

         During Plaintiff's first year of residency in the Program, Dr. Sophia Goslings, one of the supervising physicians under which Plaintiff trained and the Associate Program Director of the residency program, subjected Plaintiff to unwanted sexual advances. (Id. at ¶¶13-14). In August 2014, Plaintiff worked an inpatient clinical rotation under the supervision of Dr. Goslings. (Id.).

         During that rotation, Dr. Goslings was overly friendly to Plaintiff and took opportunities to touch him unnecessarily and sit uncomfortably close to him. (Id.). Dr. Goslings invited Plaintiff to her house after hours and invited him to call her. (Id.). Plaintiff was uncomfortable with Dr. Goslings' conduct. (Id.).

         On December 1, 2014, Plaintiff met with Dr. Trimm, the Pediatric Residency Program Director, for his first semiannual evaluation. At the meeting, Plaintiff received praise from Dr. Trimm and was told that he had met all of his milestones. (Id. at ¶¶15-16).

         In December 2014 and January 2015, Plaintiff again worked under Dr. Goslings. (Id.). During that time, Dr. Goslings spent an inordinate amount of time asking Plaintiff questions about his personal life while touching him; she invited him to eat with her or to accompany her to other activities, including a pottery/ceramics class; she continued to invite him to her house; she touched Plaintiff's hands while talking about patients; she made a point to sit next to him and touch his leg; and she put her hand over his shoulder. (Id.).

         In an attempt to thwart Dr. Goslings' unwanted advances, Plaintiff told Goslings that he was involved in a relationship with someone else, and Goslings quizzed him in detail about that relationship. (Id. at ¶¶17-20). After that conversation, Goslings became hostile and critical of Plaintiff each time they worked together, while continuing the unwanted touching. (Id.).

         During his second year of residency, Dr. Goslings worked with Plaintiff for one or two weeks but would not provide an evaluation of him. (Id.). At the following semiannual meeting with Dr. Trimm, Trimm treated Plaintiff much more critically than before. (Id.).

         In December 2016, Goslings evaluated Plaintiff and provided a very negative evaluation, after working with him for only three days. (Id.). In January 2017, Plaintiff worked with Goslings again for another three days, and Plaintiff asked for feedback from her, which she refused, claiming that she had not worked with him long enough. (Id.). During that time, Goslings subjected Plaintiff to uncharacteristically and artificially low evaluations, or she withheld evaluations. (Id.). Goslings also schemed to taint Plaintiff's performance in the eyes of Trimm, the Program Director, by supplying Trimm with false and unwarranted information regarding Plaintiff's performance. (Id.). Plaintiff understood from Goslings' words and conduct that his evaluations and standing in the program would improve if he ceased resisting her advances. (Id.).

         During Plaintiff's second year of residency, he had a semiannual meeting with Trimm wherein Plaintiff asked Trimm about Gosling's poor evaluations and behavior toward him. (Id. at ¶¶ 21-22). In response, Trimm threatened to hit Plaintiff “with a 4x4” or kick him out of the program. (Id.). Trimm informed Plaintiff that he was not there to “change the culture.” (Id.).

         During the semiannual meeting with Trimm in December 2016 or January 2017, Plaintiff told Trimm about Gosling getting too close to him and touching him and that Gosling's poor evaluations were reprisals for Plaintiff having declined her advances. (Id.). Trimm again responded that Plaintiff was there to listen and not “change the system, ” and Plaintiff understood from Trimm's response that his complaints would not be acted upon and that it was not in his interest to continue to protest. (Id.).

         On February 8, 2017, Trimm placed Plaintiff on disciplinary probation for alleged shortcomings in Plaintiff's performance, purportedly evidenced by his scores during his first, second, and third years on a practice test called the In-Training Exam (ITE), which is developed and administered by the American Board of Pediatrics as a means of self-assessment for residents to guide their training. (Id. at ¶¶23-24). Trimm misused the ITE exam scores as a pretext to institute probation, violating the admonitions of the American Board of Pediatrics against such use. (Id.).

         At a meeting on February 8, 2017, Plaintiff asked Dr. Trimm why a similarly-situated female resident with similar scores was not placed on probation, and Dr. Trimm told Plaintiff that if he questioned the system, he would be “dismissed, ” especially given that he was on probation. (Id. at ¶¶ 24-26). Trimm failed to give Plaintiff an opportunity to present his own information to the Program Director prior to the institution of the probation. (Id.).

         Plaintiff successfully completed his probation during his third year of residency and completed the program. (Id. at ¶¶27-28). Plaintiff applied for a license to practice medicine in the state of California and was required to disclose that he was subject to probation while training in the Program. (Id.). Every jurisdiction in the United States required similar disclosures as a prerequisite to licensure, which limited Plaintiff's access to fellowship training opportunities and licensure to practice medicine. (Id.).

         Dr. Sadeghian anonymously notified Defendant South's Graduate Medical Education office about Dr. Gosling's sexual harassment via an online “New-Innovations” website.[3] (Id. at ¶¶29-31). The online complaint was directed to Dr. Samuel A. McQuiston, who was the Associate Dean for Graduate Medical Education at South and the Designated Institutional Official charged with ensuring compliance with ACGME requirements. (Id.). According to Plaintiff, South failed to investigate or otherwise address the complaint submitted by Plaintiff. (Id.).

         In response to Plaintiff's amended complaint, on March 21, 2018, Defendants South, Trimm, and Goslings moved to dismiss the amended complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and (6), on the basis of lack of jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus, preemption, Eleventh Amendment immunity, statute of limitations, and failure to state a claim. This motion has been fully briefed and is now ready for resolution. (Doc. 20).

         II. Standard of Review

         A defendant may move to dismiss a complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) if the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. “The standard of review for a motion to dismiss is the same for the appellate court as it [is] for the trial court.” Stephens v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 901 F.2d 1571, 1573 (11th Cir. 1990). “When considering a motion to dismiss, all facts set forth in the plaintiff's complaint ‘are to be accepted as true and the court limits its consideration to the pleadings and exhibits attached thereto.” Grossman v. Nationsbank, N.A., 225 F.3d 1228, 1231 (11th Cir. 2000) (quoting GSW, Inc. v. Long County, 999 F.2d 1508, 1510 (11th Cir. 1993)). All “reasonable inferences” are drawn in favor of the plaintiff. St. George v. Pinellas County, 285 F.3d 1334, 1337 (11th Cir. 2002).

         To survive a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the complaint “does not need detailed factual allegations”; however, the “plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. . . . Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . ., on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal citations omitted). The plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570. Unless a plaintiff has “nudged [his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, ” the complaint “must be dismissed.” Id.

         “[U]unsupported conclusions of law or of mixed fact and law” will not defeat a Rule 12(b)(6) motion for dismissal. Dalrymple v. Reno, 334 F.3d 991, 996 (11th Cir. 2003) (quoting Marsh v. Butler County, Ala., 268 F.3d 1014, 1036 n.16 (11th Cir. 2001)). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘show[n]' - that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). The U.S. Supreme Court has suggested that courts adopt a “two-pronged approach” when considering motions to dismiss: “1) eliminate any allegations in the complaint that are merely legal conclusions; and 2) where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, ‘assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.'” American Dental Ass'n v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 664). Importantly, “courts may infer from the factual allegations in the complaint ‘obvious alternative explanation[s],' which suggest lawful conduct rather than the unlawful conduct the plaintiff would ask the court to infer.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 682).

         III. Analysis

         In their brief in support of their motion to dismiss, Defendants argue that Count One of Plaintiff's amended complaint is due to be dismissed because the Court lacks jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus to a state officer, and that Counts Two through Four are due to be dismissed for a variety of reasons, including failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, qualified immunity, and expiration of the applicable statute of limitations. (Doc. 20 at 6-29). For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is due to be granted in part and denied in part, as set forth herein.

         A. Petition for a Writ of Mandamus (Count One).

         In their brief, Defendants argue that Count One of Plaintiff's Amended Complaint must be dismissed because the Court lacks jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus to a state officer, and, further, that Plaintiff has failed to show that he has a clear legal right to relief sought and no other remedy available.[4] (Doc. 20 at 7). Plaintiff responds that the Court has supplemental jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus to the state officials named as Defendants in this case, and that, alternatively, the Court may treat the petition as a request for injunctive relief. (Doc. 27 at 2-4).

         In Count One of the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Trimm, a state official, violated the rules and regulations of the university in placing Plaintiff on probation; that Trimm failed to follow the procedure for placing a resident on probation, as set out in Defendant South's Graduate Medical Education Policies and Procedures manual; that Trimm failed to notify Plaintiff of the proposed probation in writing in a timely manner; that Trimm violated South's rules and regulations when he failed to give Plaintiff the mandatory opportunity to give information to the program director or residency training committee in defense prior to the imposition of probation; and that Trimm acted beyond his authority, arbitrarily, fraudulently, and/or in bad faith with respect to these actions. (Doc. 17 ¶32). Plaintiff requests that the Court issue a writ of mandamus directing Defendant Trimm, or his Program Director successor, to rescind Plaintiff's probation and remove it from his record (Doc. 17 ¶32) and that the Court grant equitable relief in the form of an order requiring Defendant South to remove the probation from his record. (Id. at 12 ¶5).

         The law is settled that “[f]ederal mandamus is available only to ‘compel an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof to perform a duty owed to the plaintiff.'” Bailey v. Silberman, 226 Fed.Appx. 922, 924 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1361). “Federal courts have no jurisdiction to issue writs of mandamus directing a state court and its judicial officers in the performance of their duties where mandamus is the only relief sought.” Id. (citing Moye v. Clerk, DeKalb County Superior Court, 474 F.2d 1275, 1276 (5th Cir. 1973)). Because the Defendants named in Plaintiff's Amended Complaint are not officers or employees of the United States or any agency thereof, the Court lacks jurisdiction to grant the mandamus relief requested.

         That being said, where a Plaintiff's petition is more in the nature of a request for injunctive relief than mandamus, the Court may treat the petition as a request for injunctive relief. See Chandler v. Wiley, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141649, *11, 2010 WL 5887799, *4 (M.D. Ga. Nov. 2, 2010), report and recommendation adopted, 2011 WL 767398 (M.D. Ga. Feb. 25, 2011) (citing Carter v. Hardy, 527 F.2d 314 (5th Cir. 1976); English v. Laidler, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88063, 2009 WL 3153749, *1 (M.D. Ga. Sept. 24, 2009) (construing Plaintiff's request as more in the nature of a request for injunctive relief than mandamus, and noting, “[s]ection 1983 authorizes federal injunctive relief against state officials, whether executive, legislative, or judicial, to prevent violation of due process rights.”); Thurman v. Jordan, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58326, 2010 WL 2402900, *1 (M.D. Ga. June 14, 2010) (construing Plaintiff's request for mandamus relief against a state official as one for injunctive relief and allowing it to proceed).

         Here, Plaintiff clearly seeks equitable/injunctive relief against Defendants South and Trimm with respect to expungement of the probation from his record. (Doc. 17 at 9-12). Therefore, the Court finds that Plaintiff's claim is more in the nature of one for injunctive relief than mandamus, and it will be allowed to proceed.

         Accordingly, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Count One of the Amended Complaint is due to be granted, in part, as to Plaintiff's request for a petition for a writ of mandamus and denied, in part, as to Plaintiff's request for injunctive relief, as previously set forth herein.

         B. Title IX Claims (Counts Two and Four).

         As set forth above, Plaintiff alleges in the amended complaint that he was employed as a medical resident at the University of South Alabama (Doc. 17, ¶3) and that Defendants Goslings and Trimm, as officials of the university, deliberately subjected him to discrimination under 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a) after he refused Goslings' sexual advances and after he reported Goslings' unlawful conduct to Trimm. (Doc. 17 at 9-10). Plaintiff alleges that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to his right to access educational opportunities, that they knew of Goslings' sexual harassment and retaliatory conduct and failed to take corrective action, and that Trimm likewise retaliated against Plaintiff, at the behest of Goslings, by placing him on probation after he complained of Goslings' conduct. (Id.).

         In their motion to dismiss, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim under Title IX for several reasons. (Doc. 20 at 7). The Court will address each argument in turn.

         1. Preemption.

         First, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's Title IX sex discrimination claims are preempted by Title VII. (Doc. 20 at 8-11). Plaintiff counters that the question of whether Title VII preempts Plaintiff's private cause of action under Title IX for quid pro quo harassment and retaliation has not yet been decided in the Eleventh Circuit or by the Supreme Court, and, more importantly, that courts addressing such claims by plaintiffs who are both employees and students of a federally funded educational program, such as Plaintiff here, have held that their Title IX claims are not preempted by Title VII. (Doc. 27 at 8, 12).

         “Title IX prohibits sex discrimination by recipients of federal education funding.” Heatherly v. University of Ala. Bd. of Trs., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118869, *62-63, 2018 WL 3439341, *19 (N.D. Ala. July 17, 2018) (citing Jackson v. Birmingham Bd. of Educ., 544 U.S. 167, 173 (2005)). Title IX provides in relevant part that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a) (1988). This prohibition on discrimination is enforceable through an implied cause of action. See Cannon v. Univ. of Chicago, 441 U.S. 677, 688-89 (1979). Sexual harassment is an actionable form of discrimination under Title IX, see Franklin v. Gwinnett County Pub. Schools, 503 U.S. 60, 75 (1992), and both damages and injunctive relief are available in private suits under Title IX. See Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Comm., 555 U.S. 246, 255 (2009). “Title IX's broad directive that no person may be discriminated against on the basis of gender appears, on its face, to include employees as well as students.” Heatherly, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118869 at *63, 2018 WL 3439341 at *19 (quoting North Haven Bd. of Ed. v. Bell, 456 U.S. 512, 520, 102 S.Ct. 1912, 72 L.Ed.2d 299 (1982) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         Similarly, “Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against any individual with respect to her compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of that individual's sex.” Heatherly, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118869 at *63 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)).

         The question presented here is whether Title VII preempts a Title IX action for gender/sex discrimination asserted by a plaintiff who is both a student and an employee of a federally funded educational program. As the parties have pointed out, neither the Supreme Court nor the Eleventh Circuit has addressed this issue, nor even the separate, broader issue of whether Title VII preempts a Title IX sex discrimination claim filed by a plaintiff who is solely an employee (and not a student) of a federally funded educational program.[5]

         By way of background, Defendants correctly point out that the other Circuits that have addressed the issue of Title VII preemption in the context of plaintiffs who are solely employees of a federally funded educational institution are split on the question. See generally Heatherly, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118869, *63-65, 2018 WL 3439341, *20-21 (N.D. Ala. July 17, 2018) (“Neither the Supreme Court nor the Eleventh Circuit has addressed whether Title VII preempts Title IX when a plaintiff is alleging employment discrimination and Title VII provides a parallel remedy. A circuit split exists among the courts of appeals that have decided this question.”) (collecting cases). Defendants also correctly point out that the district courts in this Circuit addressing the issue, including this Court, have generally held that Title VII preempts a Title IX employment discrimination claim filed by a plaintiff who is solely an employee (and not a student) of a federally funded educational institution when Title VII provides a parallel remedy. See, e.g., Morris v. Wallace Cmty. College-Selma, 125 F.Supp.2d 1315, 1343 (S.D. Ala. 2001) (holding that an athletic instructor's Title IX claim for employment discrimination was precluded by Title VII); Drisin v. Florida Int'l Univ. Bd. of Trustees, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100247, *10, 2017 WL 3505299, *5 (S.D. Fla. June 27, 2017) (holding that a former professor's Title IX claim for gender discrimination was preempted by Title VII); Blalock v. Dale Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 84 F.Supp.2d 1291, 1298 (M.D. Ala. 1999) (holding that “Title VII provides the exclusive remedy for individuals alleging employment discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded educational institutions” in a Title IX action for discrimination and retaliation filed by a female coach); Hazel v. School Bd. of Dade Cnty., 7 F.Supp.2d 1349, 1354 (S.D. Fla. 1998) (holding that “Title VII is the exclusive remedy for employment discrimination claims on the basis of sex in federally funded educational institutions” in a Title IX suit for discrimination/sexual harassment filed by a student activities director for a high school); Gibson v. Hickman, 2 F.Supp.2d 1481, 1484 (M.D. Ga. 1998) (holding that “Title VII preempts employment discrimination claims for money damages brought under Title IX” in a Title IX action for sexual harassment filed by an employee of the school district).

         The question presented here, however, is different. Here, the question concerns whether Title VII preempts a Title IX action for sex discrimination asserted by a plaintiff who is both a student and an employee of a federally funded educational program. While neither the Eleventh Circuit nor the Supreme Court has addressed this issue either, two district courts in this Circuit have addressed this issue and have held that it does not.

         In Morrison v. University of Miami, 2016 WL 3129490, *1 (S.D. Fla. Jan. 20, 2016), a student in the university's Ph.D. program, who was also employed by the university as a research assistant for a professor, filed Title IX claims against the university and two professors for harassment based on sex, hostile educational environment, and retaliation after she refused the sexual advances of one of the professors and was subjected to retaliation when she reported the professor's conduct to the university. The court rejected the defendants' arguments that the plaintiff's Title IX claims were preempted by Title VII, stating:

The University asserts that although Plaintiff was both a graduate student and an employee of the University, her Title IX claims arose in the context of her employment as McGinn's RA. Id. Therefore, the University argues, Plaintiff may not circumvent Title VII's administrative scheme and proceed under Title IX simply because she failed to exhaust the administrative remedies under Title VII, which would be fatal to her claims. Id. In opposition, Plaintiff argues that neither the United States Supreme Court nor the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals have held that Title VII pre-empts Title IX in all circumstances. D.E. 36. Plaintiff asserts that all of the cases relied upon by the University involve plaintiffs who were solely employees of an educational institution where the alleged sexual-discrimination and retaliation claims arose. Id. Plaintiff contends that because Plaintiff was both a Ph.D. student who was, at times, concurrently employed by the University, she is entitled to the protections under both Title VII and Title IX, but she has instead opted to pursue her claims through Title IX and the Florida Civil Rights Act (“FCRA”). Id.
According to Plaintiff's Complaint, Plaintiff was both a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy and was employed as a Resident Assistant during the period of the alleged sexual harassment and retaliation. D.E. 1 ¶ 5. The Court agrees with Plaintiff that none of the authorities cited by the University are analogous to the facts of this case, where a plaintiff was concurrently an employee and a student. Based upon the lack of controlling authority and in light of the public policy behind these statutory schemes, the Court takes note of Plaintiff's argument that “[t]o deprive [Plaintiff] of the right to pursue her Title IX claims for the educational detriment she suffered as a result of Defendant's wrongdoing would unfairly punish her for being employed by the same institution where she was also enrolled as [a] student.” Accordingly, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Counts I, II, and III is DENIED.

Morrison, 2016 WL 3129490 at *5.

         Likewise, in Wilborn v. Southern Union State Cmty. Coll., 720 F.Supp.2d 1274, 1304 (M.D. Ala. 2010), a female student in a summer truck driving program filed a claim for sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in violation of Title VII and Title IX against a community college, the Alabama Department of Education and Community Affairs (ADECA), the Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education (ADPE), and certain program instructors. Because the program involved a combination of classroom instruction and driver training and ostensibly ...


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