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Jordan A. Brown v. Ramona Brockett

April 27, 2012

JORDAN A. BROWN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
RAMONA BROCKETT,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Frederick Motz United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff, Jordan A. Brown ("Brown"), filed this claim against defendant, Ramona Brockett ("Brockett"), alleging defamation and false light.*fn1 Brown, a resident of Delaware, seeks a jury trial, $500,000 in compensatory damages, and $500,000 in punitive damages, including attorneys‟ fees and costs, from Brockett, a resident of Maryland.*fn2 Brockett contends that, as a professor at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore ("UMES"), she is a state employee and is therefore immune from suit under the Maryland Tort Claims Act ("MTCA"), Md. Code Ann. State Gov‟t § 12-105. Brockett filed a motion for summary judgment as to all claims. The issues have been fully briefed, and a hearing is not necessary. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, Brockett‟s motion for summary judgment is denied.

I.*fn3

In 2009, plaintiff Jordan A. Brown ("Brown") was a senior at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore ("UMES"), where he served as president of the Phi Alpha Delta Legal Fraternity ("PAD") from the spring of 2008 through February 2009. (Pl.‟s Mot. Opp‟n Summ. J. at 6 ("Pl.‟s Opp‟n"), ECF No. 47-1; Def.‟s Mot. Summ. J. at 1, ECF No. 44-1.) Defendant Ramona Brockett, a professor at UMES, served as the advisor to the UMES chapter of PAD. (Def.‟s Mot. Summ. J. at 1.) In that capacity, Brockett worked closely with Brown. (Id. at 2.) According to Brockett, their interactions were strictly "student-related" for the purposes of planning conferences and other PAD events. (Brockett Dep. 249:20--267:20, ECF No. 44-2.) Brown, however, contends there was more to their relationship, including Brockett‟s discussions of personal matters, such as her sexual history, her relationship with her parents, and the sexuality of other students and faculty members. (Brown Decl. ¶ 26, ECF No.47-5.) Brown also alleges that Brockett requested two loans from him, one for $1035, which he gave her, and another request for $1500, which he did not. (Id. ¶¶ 30--35.) Brockett disputes the amount of money exchanged and denies that the transaction was a loan; she says Brown volunteered to withdraw and give her $1000 cash in consideration of a post-dated check for $1000. (Def.‟s Answers to Interrog. 7; ECF No. 48-3.) In January and February 2009, Brown claims Brockett made harassing phone calls and sent harassing text messages and emails saying she missed him, needed to talk to him, and "needed [him] and [his] mind desperately." (Pl.‟s Opp‟n at 11; voicemails transcribed in Brown Dep. 207:3--213:20, ECF No. 47-10; emails Ex. 20, ECF No. 47-21.) In response to these repeated calls, emails, and texts, Brown resigned his position as president of PAD on February 6, 2009. (Pl.‟s Opp‟n at 11.) He emailed Brockett to explain that he was resigning to focus on other things leading up to graduation, (email from Brown to Brockett, ECF No. 48-9), but he also contacted UMES officials to explain that his resignation was due to the harassing voicemails and emails he received from Brockett. (Id. at 11.) Brockett eventually learned from another professor, Nicole Buzetto-Moore, that Brown had disclosed these details to university officials, (id. at 30), and that Brown told Buzetto-Moore that Brockett "wanted to (a) borrow money from him (b) wanted sex from him (c) had left all kinds of lewd messages for him on his machine [and] (d) was harassing him." (Id. at 9.) Brockett is currently on leave from UMES as a result of the allegations of harassment and defamation, and UMES has filed a grievance against her. (Brockett Dep. 101:7--14; 115:4--10.)

In the fall of 2009, Vincent Brown ("Vincent"), no relation to plaintiff, was appointed vice president of PAD. (Def.‟s Mot. Summ. J. at 2.) Vincent applied to join PAD in November 2008 and submitted a check for the $70 membership dues along with his application. (Id.) Brown was PAD president when Vincent applied and was therefore responsible for depositing Vincent‟s check in the PAD bank account and forwarding all new membership dues to the national PAD headquarters. (Id.) Brown deposited the check in one of the local chapter‟s PAD bank accounts, but he resigned his position before forwarding Vincent‟s application and membership fee to PAD. (Id.) As a result, Vincent had never become a member of the national PAD organization and was therefore forced to resign from his vice president post, a resignation Brockett called "both public and embarrassing." (Id.)

Following his resignation, Vincent contacted Byron Rupp ("Rupp"), the director of PAD International, to explain that his dues had been paid but never forwarded. (Id. at 3.) Rupp then contacted Brockett to discuss the situation and informed her that many PAD chapters across the country were experiencing problems with students misappropriating membership dues. (Id.) Rupp asked Brockett to inquire as to UMES policy regarding possible misappropriation of funds by fiduciary officers. (Id.) On February 2, 2010, Brockett drafted an email to James Lunnermon, director of Student Affairs for UMES, and copied fourteen other individuals, including other UMES faculty members, UMES administrators, PAD student board members, and three law professors at the University of Baltimore. (Id. at 3--4.) In the email, Brockett explained that Brown had been PAD president when Vincent applied for membership, that Brown‟s resignation had been "quite odd," and that he had not been forthcoming with the documents entrusted to him as the fiduciary officer. (Id.) She went on to say that Brown "cashed at least one check in his home state of Delaware instead of sending the monies into the PAD headquarters" and that they "would have never known of this misappropriation of funds" if Vincent had not been appointed vice president. (Id. at 4.) Brockett concluded by saying that Rupp was interested in severe sanctions against Brown, including stripping him of his PAD membership and informing law schools around the country of his misappropriation, and that Rupp had inquired into the procedure at UMES "for students who shirk their fiduciary responsibilities and misappropriate funds." (Id.) Brockett sent this email without contacting Brown directly and before any investigation had been done. (Brockett Dep. 110: 5.) Brockett now contends that she did not accuse Brown of anything in the email but was merely relaying Rupp‟s request for information regarding sanctions. (Id. at 102:19--103106:18; 212:10--13.)

On March 1, 2010, Brockett emailed David Spinner ("Spinner"), chairperson of the UMES Department of Criminal Justice, and copied four other individuals, including Rupp and UMES students affiliated with PAD, encouraging Spinner to speak with Rupp regarding Brown‟s resignation and Vincent‟s missing check. (Id. at 5.) Spinner‟s investigation revealed that Brown had not misappropriated funds. (Id.) In response to this determination, Brockett again emailed Rupp, copying eleven other individuals, to tell him that Brown had apparently been cleared of the charges, and she was "puzzled" as to "how the conclusion could be that "nothing‟ happened." (Id.; Email from Brockett to Spinner, ECF No. 44-7.) In response, Spinner requested that Brockett refrain from discussing the issue with people other than him until everything was resolved. (Email from Spinner to Brockett, ECF No. 47-18.) Ronnie Holden, vice president for Administrative Affairs at UMES, then wrote to Brockett March 3, 2010 ordering her to refrain from "inappropriately shar[ing] these allegations with various campus constituencies" and people "external to the campus" and to follow UMES policy as it relates to possible fiscal irregularity. (Letter from Holden to Brockett, ECF No. 47-6.)

Brockett admits she never investigated the matter before sending the emails, and to this day she has "no idea" whether Brown misappropriated any funds. (Brockett Dep. 176:7--18, 343:10--344:5.) She now says that, at the time, she "didn‟t think Jordan Brown had anything to do with it." (Id. 110: 7--8.) Brown contends that, as a result of Brockett‟s accusations, he was embarrassed and humiliated and suffered fear and anxiety that he would not get into law school. (Brown Dep. 33:22, 35:21--22, 149:22--151:13.) Brown is also concerned about his prospects for future employment and his standing in the community and in personal relationships. (Id. at 149:21--25.)

On January 28, 2011 Brown filed a complaint against both UMES and Brockett, alleging defamation and false light and seeking $200,000 in compensatory damages. He subsequently amended his complaint to drop UMES as a defendant and to increase his compensatory damages request to $500,000 and add an additional $500,000 in punitive damages. Now pending before the court is Brockett‟s motion for summary judgment.

II.

Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a party may seek summary judgment on each claim or defense or part thereof. Summary judgment should be rendered when "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2). The Supreme Court has clarified that this does not mean any factual dispute will defeat the motion. "By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247--48 (1986). Whether a fact is material depends on the substantive law. See id.

The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party has met that burden, the non-moving party must demonstrate that such an issue does, in fact, exist. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586--87 (1986). "A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [his] pleadings,‟ but rather must "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.‟" Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 525 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)); see also Rivanna Trawlers Unltd. v. Thompson Trawlers, Inc., 840 F.2d 236, 240 (4th Cir.1988). The court generally must view all facts and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 377 (2007).

III.

A.Maryland Tort Claims Act Immunity

According to the Maryland Tort Claims Act ("MTCA"), Md. Code Ann. State Gov‟t § 12-105, state employees "are immune from suit in courts of the state and from liability in tort for a tortious act or omission that is within the scope of the public duties of the state personnel . . . and is made without malice or gross negligence." Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-522(b).*fn4 For purposes of a state employee‟s immunity under the MTCA, the meaning of "within the scope of the public duties of the state personnel" is generally "coextensive with the common law concept of "scope of employment‟ under the doctrine of respondeat superior." McReady v. O'Malley, 804 F. Supp. 2d 427, 444 (D. Md. 2011) (quoting Larsen v. Chinwuba, 832 A.2d 193, 200 (Md. 2003)). The general measure of whether an employee‟s act was within the scope of his employment is whether the act was "in furtherance of the employer‟s business" or "authorized" by the employer. Larsen, 832 A.2d at 200. Such "authorization" need not be express; rather, an act can be authorized "even though in opposition to [the employer‟s] express and positive orders," if it was "incident to the performance of duties entrusted" to the employee.

Id. (quoting Hopkins C. Co. v. Read Drug & C. Co., 92 A. 478, 479--80 (1914)). In determining whether certain conduct was authorized, the court should determine whether it was "of the same general nature as that authorized or incidental to the conduct authorized." Id. at 201 (quoting Sawyer v. Humphries, 587 A.2d 467, 470 (1991)). The following factors may be considered:

(a) whether or not the act is one commonly done by such servants; (b) the time, place and purpose of the act; (c) the previous relations between the master and the servant; (d) the extent to which the business of the matter is apportioned between different servants; (e) whether the act is outside the enterprise of the master or, if within the enterprise, has not been entrusted to any servant; (f) whether or not the master has reason to expect that such an act will be done; (g) the similarity in quality of the act to the act authorized; (h) whether or not the instrumentality by which the harm is done has been furnished by the master ...


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