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Lambert v. The Board of Trustees of University of Alabama

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

January 28, 2019




         Plaintiff Hartnel Lambert (“Plaintiff”) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama (the “Board”) and Arline Savage, Ph.D (collectively “Defendants”), based on alleged violations of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, arising from a failing grade Plaintiff received in an undergraduate course at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (“UAB”). (Doc.[1] 1 (“Complaint” or “Compl.”)). The cause comes to be heard on the Defendants' respective motions to dismiss, filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). (Docs. 6, 7). In his opposition brief, Plaintiff's includes a request that he be granted leave to amend to name individual members of the Board as additional defendants. (Doc. 16 at 19). Finally, in their joint reply brief, Defendants have argued for the first time that the Complaint is due to be dismissed as moot because Plaintiff has been awarded his undergraduate degree by UAB and is enrolled in one of its graduate school programs. (Doc. 19 at 24-25). Upon consideration, the court[2] concludes that, while Plaintiff's claims are not moot, they are due to be dismissed. The court will also deny Plaintiff's request for leave to amend.

         I. Background

         A. Allegations of the Complaint

         The salient allegations of the Complaint are these: Plaintiff is African-American. (¶ 4[3]). At the time of the events underlying his claims, he was an undergraduate at UAB, majoring in accounting. (¶ 9). In addition to pursuit of those studies, Plaintiff also “operated an accounting business of his own which specialized in tax preparation and business consulting.” (¶ 9).

         In the spring term of 2017, Plaintiff was enrolled in Accounting 490 (“AC 490”), an elective within UAB's School of Business. (¶ 9). As part of the course, students were required to volunteer their time to assist individuals with the preparation of their income tax returns. (¶ 10). While volunteering at one of the locations set up for students to provide such assistance, Plaintiff was approached by one John Joseph Reeser. (¶ 10). The owner of a home heating and air conditioning business (¶12), Reeser indicated he wanted help from the program in preparing the income tax return for his business. (¶ 12) However, students in the course were not allowed to provide tax preparation assistance to businesses (¶ 10), and the program was “not equipped” to prepare Reeser's return “because of the complexity of his needs.” (¶ 11). Accordingly, Reeser was rejected as ineligible for assistance under the program. (¶ 18). During their conversation, however, Plaintiff told Reeser that he was interested in having Reeser perform some heating and air conditioning work at Plaintiff's home. (¶ 12). Reeser gave his business card to Plaintiff. (¶ 12).

         Plaintiff later called Reeser to schedule an appointment for the air conditioning and heating work. (¶ 13). In the course of that discussion, Reeser again “questioned [Plaintiff] about help with filing [Reeser's] business return.” (¶ 13). After Plaintiff told Reeser of “some general steps he could take to help himself, ” Reeser asked Plaintiff if he would prepare his business tax return for him. (¶ 13). Plaintiff agreed to do so for a fee of $297.00. (¶ 13). On April 16, 2017.[4]Plaintiff and Reeser met on the UAB campus, whereupon Reeser provided Plaintiff with documents to complete Reeser's return. (¶ 15). Reeser also apparently paid Plaintiff the agreed-upon fee. (See ¶¶ 13, 21).

         On April 25, 2017, Plaintiff received an email from Eddie Nabors, the AC 490 course instructor. (¶ 16). Nabors told Plaintiff he needed to attend a meeting in the Dean's office on April 27th to address “an issue that arose as part of [the] class.” (¶ 16). When Plaintiff asked for further information about the “issue, ” Nabors remained vague, advising that it would be discussed at the meeting. (¶ 16).

         Upon arriving at the meeting, Plaintiff was confronted by four white males. (¶ 17). Two were from UAB: Nabors and Assistant Professor of Finance Larry Cowart. (¶ 17). The other two were associated with an entity Plaintiff's Complaint identifies only as “Savefirst, ” although it fails to include any explanation of what it is or what relation it might have had to UAB or the AC 490 course.[5] (¶ 17). In any event, Plaintiff alleges that one of the Savefirst representatives, its founder and then-President Stephen Black, accused Plaintiff of having committed a crime by performing the tax preparation services for Reeser. (¶¶ 17, 18). Plaintiff further claims that Black, Cowart, and Nabors “continuously threatened [him] with state and/or federal prosecution … [and] incarceration.” (¶ 19). Plaintiff protested that he had done nothing wrong because he had not solicited business from Reeser; rather, Plaintiff explained that he had agreed to prepare Reeser's tax return only after Reeser had been rejected by the volunteer program as ineligible and had approached Plaintiff away from school. (¶ 18). At the conclusion of the meeting, Plaintiff was told “that a decision regarding his future at UAB would be forthcoming.” (¶ 20).

         A few days later, Plaintiff checked his grades and discovered he had been given a failing grade of “F” in the AC 490 course. (¶ 20). Plaintiff scheduled a meeting with Defendant Savage, the Chair of UAB's Department of Accounting and Finance. (¶ 21). At that meeting on May 7, 2017, Plaintiff handed Dr. Savage a money order for $297.00, requesting that she forward it to Reeser, representing a refund of the tax preparation fee Reeser paid to Plaintiff. (¶ 21). According to Plaintiff, Dr. Savage told Plaintiff that he received the “F” in the AC 490 course because he didn't have enough volunteer hours. (¶ 22). Plaintiff, however, says he immediately produced emails from Savefirst showing that he did, in fact, have more than enough volunteer hours to satisfy the course requirements. (¶ 22). Dr. Savage then allegedly advised Plaintiff that he had received the “F” because he had prepared Reeser's business tax return and charged him a fee. (¶ 23).

         B. Procedural History

         On July 20, 2018, claiming that his failing grade “led to his … withdrawal from [UAB]” (¶ 2), “dramatically lowered [his grade point average, ] and caused him significant problems in completing his undergraduate studies and attending graduate school” (¶ 23), Plaintiff filed this action. As defendants, Plaintiff has named the Board and Dr. Savage, with the latter being sued in both her official and individual capacities. (Compl. at 1, Caption). Plaintiff sets out his claims in two counts. The first, “Count I, ” is captioned, “Declaratory Relief.” (See Id. at p. 7). After incorporating by reference all preceding paragraphs of the pleading (¶ 24), Count I contains but a single operative sentence:

[Plaintiff] seeks entry of an order declaring that he was denied due process of law and equal protection of the law under the United States Constitution, Amendment Fourteen[, ] and that his rightfully earned grade be set forth on his transcript and that all mention of the ‘F' wrongfully given to him be removed from his academic files along with any indication of the incident set forth in this lawsuit.

(¶ 25).

         “Count II, ” in turn, is captioned, “42 U.S.C. § 1983 & Constitutional Claims (Due Process and Race Discrimination).” (Compl. at p. 7). It too incorporates all preceding allegations. (¶ 26). Among those are assertions that Plaintiff had a constitutionally protected “property interest in continued enrollment in a state school” (¶ 3) and that he was denied due process on the theory that, “before the decision to fail him was made, … he was not given an opportunity to call witnesses, seek counsel, or cross-examine his accuser(s).” (¶ 2). Plaintiff also contends that his rights under the Equal Protection Clause were violated in that he “was subjected to unwarranted discipline on the basis of his race which led to his receiving a failing grade.” (¶ 2). At the end of Count II, Plaintiff demands the following relief:

(a) preliminary and/or permanent injunctive relief, including but not limited to, back pay and front pay or reinstatement in lieu thereof;
(b) Compensatory damages;
(c) Punitive damages [against the individual Defendant]; and
(d) Attorney's Fees.

(¶ 29).

         Notwithstanding that Count I and Count II each contain a demand for relief, Plaintiff's Complaint also concludes with a separate “Prayer for Relief.” (Compl. at pp. 8-9). However, that “prayer” essentially consists of additional demands for the same declaratory and injunctive relief sought in Count I (id., Prayer for Relief ¶¶ 1, 3) and for compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees as sought in Count II. (Id., Prayer for Relief ¶¶ 2, 4). In addition, Plaintiff's “Prayer for Relief” asks generally for an award of “costs … and expenses, ” plus any other “relief and benefits as the cause of justice may require.” (Id. ¶ 4).

         Defendants have filed respective motions to dismiss. (Docs. 6, 7). The Board argues that it is entitled to a dismissal because, among other reasons, it is an arm of the State of Alabama and thereby enjoys immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. Dr. Savage likewise claims Eleventh Amendment immunity to the extent she is sued in her official capacity. Both Defendants further argue that Plaintiff's allegations are insufficient to state a plausible claim that the Board or Dr. Savage violated constitutional guarantees of due process or equal protection. Dr. Savage also contends that, even if Plaintiff could plead such a violation, she is protected by qualified immunity as to any claims for damages against her in her individual capacity. Finally, both Defendants also argue that Count I is due to be dismissed because it is merely a demand for a certain kind of relief, namely, a declaratory judgment, not a discrete “claim” based on a legal theory under which liability might attach. Defendants also both argue that Count I is subject to dismissal because it is redundant of Plaintiff's other demands for similar relief set out in Count II and his “Prayer for Relief.”

         Plaintiff filed a consolidated response in opposition to Defendants' motions. (Doc. 16). Plaintiff argues therein that the Supreme Court's decision in Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), “allows [him] to seek declaratory relief from both Defendants.” (Id. at 9). Alternatively, he contends in this vein that should the court deem his claims against the Board to barred by the Eleventh Amendment, he is entitled to leave to amend to sue the individual members of the Board for relief under Ex parte Young. (Id. at 19). Plaintiff further insists his being given a failing grade in the AC 490 course was racially discriminatory and that qualified immunity does not shield Dr. Savage from liability for that decision. (Id. at 11-13). Finally, Plaintiff argues that his being given that failing grade without prior notice and an opportunity to be heard violated both the substantive and procedural components of the Due Process Clause. (Id. at 13-19). In support of his due process claims, Plaintiff complains that “Defendants utterly failed to provide [him] protections due him according to UAB's Student Code of Conduct, ” from which he quotes an excerpt outlining rights students are deemed to possess as it relates to administrative proceedings under that code. (Id. at 13-14). Plaintiff has also attached to his opposition brief a copy of the UAB Student Conduct Code (Doc. 16-1), of which he asks the court to take judicial notice. (Doc. 16 at 13 n. 3).

         Defendants filed a consolidated reply in support of their motions to dismiss. (Doc. 19). Defendants there largely reiterate and reinforce their prior arguments regarding (1) the purported redundancy and insufficiency of Count I; (2) Eleventh Amendment immunity and the Ex parte Young exception thereto; (3) the alleged insufficiency of Plaintiff's allegations to establish that the Board or Dr. Savage caused a violation of Plaintiff's right to due process or equal protection, and (4) Dr. Savage's claim of qualified immunity. Defendants also deny that Plaintiff is entitled to amend the Complaint to add individual members of the Board as defendants. (Id. at 23-24). Finally, Defendants also argue for the first time in their reply brief that Plaintiff's Complaint should be dismissed as moot. (Id. at 24-25). That is so, Defendants say, because, even before filing this action, Plaintiff had both graduated from UAB with an undergraduate degree in accounting and been admitted to UAB's graduate program for candidates seeking a Master of Business Administration (“MBA”), a program in which he remains enrolled to this day. (Id.). To establish those facts, Defendants refer the court to an affidavit from the UAB registrar, Cynthia Terry. (Doc. 19-1).

         II. Discussion

         A. Mootness

         The court first considers Defendants' claim that the Complaint is due to be dismissed as moot. “[A] case is moot when it no longer presents a live controversy with respect to which the court can give meaningful relief.” Hall v. Secretary, Alabama, 902 F.3d 1294, 1297 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting Al Najjar v. Ashcroft, 273 F.3d 1330, 1336 (11th Cir. 2001), quoting, in turn, Florida Ass'n of Rehab. Facilities, Inc. v. Florida Dep't of Health and Rehab. Servs., 225 F.3d 1208, 1216-17 (11th Cir. 2000)). In evaluating whether a complaint is moot, a court must consider each form of relief requested by the plaintiff and whether it remains a meaningful remedy. See Carver Middle School Gay-Straight Alliance v. School Bd. of Lake Cty., Fla., 842 F.3d 1324, 1330 (11th Cir. 2016). “[T]he burden of proving mootness generally falls heavily on the party asserting it.” Flanigan's Enterprises, Inc. of Ga. v. City of Sandy Springs, Ga., 868 F.3d 1248, 1256 (11th Cir. 2017) (en banc).

         Defendants raise their mootness claim for the first time in their reply brief in support of their motion to dismiss rather than in their motions to dismiss themselves. However, mootness implicates the court's subject matter jurisdiction because it derives directly from Article III's case-or-controversy limitation. Al Najjar, 273 F.3d at 1335. As such, the issue of mootness may be raised at any time; indeed, even if no party raises it, a federal court has an obligation to do so sua sponte upon being faced with materials indicating the case has potentially become moot. See United States v. Secretary, Fla. DOC, 778 F.3d 1223, 1226-27 (11th Cir. 2015); Cook v. Bennett, 792 F.3d 1294, 1299 n. ...

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