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Seals v. Leath

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

December 18, 2019

ALAN SEALS, Plaintiff,
v.
DR. STEVEN LEATH, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ANDREW L. BRASHER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on a motion by Dr. Steven Leath and various other former or current officials of Auburn University (“Defendants”), to dismiss the allegations of Alan Seals (“Plaintiff”), Professor of Economics at Auburn University. Plaintiff alleges First Amendment retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C §1983, a federal law conspiracy to commit First Amendment retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985, and a state law conspiracy to commit First Amendment retaliation. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss all three counts. See Doc. 16. Upon consideration, the motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are taken from the complaint and are accepted as true for present purposes.

         Six years ago, Professors at Auburn University became aware that an unusually high percentage of student-athletes were clustered in the same major: Public Administration. Although Professors voted overwhelmingly to end the major, believing it to be of little academic value, Defendant Boosinger, the Provost, overrode their decision and kept the program open. It eventually came to light that the Auburn University athletic department had offered to subsidize the Public Administration major by paying its staff. Articles were published about these events on December 5, 2014, August 28, 2015 and November 1, 2015. Seals served as a source for two of them.

         Seals' frustration with the actions of Auburn's leadership led him to create a collage of University officials linking arms with Joseph Stalin. He affixed this collage to the door of his University office. On October 18, 2016, Defendant Aistrup emailed Seals, requesting the removal of the collage and ostensibly attempting to intimidate him by inviting Seals to his office for a better picture. On October 24, in front of at least one witness, Defendant Aistrup approached Seals prior to a meeting and said “may the wings of corruption carry you far.” This conduct was brought to the attention of University President Gogue on January 11, 2017.

         Between January and April of 2017, Seals was intimately involved in a campaign by senior members of the Auburn economics faculty to form a new school of economics and become organizationally independent from the College of Liberal Arts within the Auburn University organization. The proposal was successful, and, on April 11, the economics department became operationally independent from the College of Liberal Arts. On June 19, Defendant Leath took over from Gogue as the President of Auburn University. On July 5, Defendant Boosinger, whose favorable treatment of Public Administration and the athletic department Seals had taken part in publicizing, purported to unilaterally reverse the organizational shift and reabsorbed the economics department into the College of Liberal Arts.

         On February 16, 2018 another article covering the athletic department's Public Administration scandal was published and again Seals served as a source. By late March, Seals was alarmed at the lack of support being provided to the economics faculty at Auburn and on March 22 he sent Defendant Leath an email saying as much. After agreeing to a meeting, Defendant Leath cancelled and refused to meet with Plaintiff throughout the Spring of 2018. Then, on May 25, 2018, Defendant Aistrup summarily removed Seals and Stern, another prominent member of the economics faculty who had also served as a source for various articles, from the positions of Graduate Program Officer and department chair, respectively.

         On May 31, 2018, Defendant Aistrup called the economic department's secretary, Jennifer Bruno, and instructed her to advise all graduate students to avoid speaking with Seals. Throughout the summer of 2018, actions taken against Seals intensified. Defendant Kim, newly appointed interim chair of the economics department, formed a new graduate program committee without telling Seals or any of the Professors who had expressed support for him and reduced the hours of teaching assistant support for Seals' undergraduate econometrics class. On August 31, Seals filed a grievance against Defendant Aistrup.

         In an October 1 meeting with Seals, Defendant Hardgrave admitted that the timing of his removal as Graduate Program Officer had been bad but insisted he could do nothing as he was not involved at the departmental level. At an economics department faculty meeting on November 7, Seals confronted Defendant Kim about various violations of university policy whereupon Defendant Kim responded that he acted within his department precisely as Defendant Hardgrave instructed him to. Defendant Kim claimed to have emails proving this.

         In April of 2019, Seals received his performance reviews from the preceding year which listed him as a Graduate Program Officer until May 2018 and rated his performance as “Exceeds Expectations.” While Seals remains employed as an economics professor at Auburn University, he did not receive $20, 000 in summer salary that he would have received had he not been removed from his internal position. Secretary Jennifer Bruno was formally reprimanded and involuntarily transferred out of the economics department because of her attempts to inform Seals of the actions being taken against him.

         STANDARD

         When considering a motion to dismiss, the court accepts all facts alleged in the complaint as true and draws all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Keating v. City of Miami, 598 F.3d 753, 762 (11th Cir. 2010). There are two questions a court must answer before dismissing a complaint. First, the court must ask whether there are allegations that are no more than conclusions. If there are, they are discarded. Second, the court must ask whether there are any remaining factual allegations which, if true, could plausibly give rise to a claim for relief. If there are none, the complaint will be dismissed. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff's targets in this litigation are Dr. Steven Leath, who served as the President of Auburn University between 2017 and 2019, Dr. Bill Hardgrave, who is the Provost of Auburn University, Dr. Joseph Aistrup, who is the Dean of the Auburn University College of Liberal Arts, Dr. Hyeongwoo Kim, chair of the economics department at Auburn University, and Dr. Tim Boosinger, who served formerly as the Provost of Auburn University. Plaintiff alleges in Count One that all defendants retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights in violation of 42 U.S.C §1983, in Count Two that all Defendants conspired to retaliate against him for exercising his First Amendment rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. §1985, and in Count Three that all Defendants conspired to retaliate against him for exercising his First Amendment rights in violation of Alabama law.

         Count One: The First Amendment Retaliation Claim Should Not Be Dismissed.

         The Eleventh Circuit standard for First Amendment retaliation claims under §1983 was articulated in Bennett v. Hendrix, 423 F.3d 1247, 1250 (11th Cir. 2005). The plaintiff must establish that his speech was constitutionally protected, that the retaliatory conduct adversely affected the protected speech, and that there is a causal connection between the retaliatory actions and the adverse effect on speech. See Id. To show that the conduct has adversely affected the speech, the plaintiff must show ...


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