United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
L. BRASHER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
following facts are taken from the complaint and are accepted
as true for present purposes.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
One: The First Amendment Retaliation Claim Should Not Be
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 ...