United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
E. OTT CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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 (“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 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.
Allegations of the Complaint
salient allegations of the Complaint are these: Plaintiff is
African-American. (¶ 4). 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).
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).
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.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).
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).
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. (¶ 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).
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).
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
[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
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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).
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).
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. ...