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Pavlovic v. University of Maryland Baltimore County

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

September 4, 2013

RADMILA PAVLOVIC, et al. Plaintiff.
v.
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND BALTIMORE COUNTY, et al. Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: MOTION TO DISMISS

MARVIN J. GARBIS, District Judge.

The Court has before it Defendants', University of Maryland Baltimore County, Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland, and Chris Geddes, Ph.D., Motion to Dismiss [Document 3], and the materials submitted relating thereto. The Court finds a hearing unnecessary.

I. BACKGROUND

At all times relevant hereto, Defendant University of Maryland Baltimore County ("UMBC") has been a part of the University System of Maryland governed by the Defendant Board of Regents, ("the Board"). Defendant Chris Geddes, Ph.D. ("Geddes") was the Director of the Institute of Fluorescence ("IOF") at UMBC and Defendant Caroleann Aitken ("Aitken"), the wife of Geddes, was the Administrator of the IOF.

From 2009 to 2012, Plaintiff Radmila Pavlovic ("Pavlovic") was a research assistant for Geddes. From 2010 to 2012, Plaintiff Sheena Young ("Young") was a graduate student in Geddes' laboratory.

Pavlovic, a Caucasian female of Serbian national origin, and Young, an African-American female, allege that Geddes and Aitken engaged in a pervasive pattern of discrimination and retaliation against them and other similarly situated research assistants and students on the basis of their race, gender, and national origin, culminating in Pavlovic's and Young's wrongful dismissal from UMBC.

In the Complaint [Document 1] Plaintiffs present claims in seven Counts:

By the instant motion, Geddes, UMBC, and the Board[1] seek dismissal of certain of the claims asserted against them pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

II. DISMISSAL STANDARD

A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)[2] tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. A complaint need only contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citations omitted). When evaluating a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a plaintiff's well-pleaded allegations are accepted as true and the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. However, conclusory statements or a "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action" will not suffice. Id . A complaint must allege sufficient facts to "cross the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'" Francis v. Giacomelli , 588 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 557).

Inquiry into whether a complaint states a plausible claim is "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id . Thus, if the well-pleaded facts contained within a complaint "do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not shown - that the pleader is entitled to relief." Id . (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

A. The "Facts"[3] as Alleged by Plaintiffs

Geddes, as the Director of the IOF, oversaw a laboratory with research assistants and graduate students. In 2009, UMBC hired Pavlovic - who held a temporary student visa that allowed her to work in the United States for one year - as a research assistant in the IOF laboratory. Geddes required Pavlovic, but not non-foreign research assistants, to perform menial tasks, such as washing garbage cans, which were outside the scope of her duties as a research assistant. Geddes warned Pavlovic and other foreign research assistants working on visas that they would be fired if they complained to UMBC's Human Resources Department or anyone else about anything going on in the IOF Department.

In 2010, Young became a graduate student in the IOF laboratory and formed a friendship with Pavlovic and a few other IOF research assistants and students of foreign origin. In March 2011, Young and other students complained to officials at UMBC that Geddes and Aitken were mistreating and discriminating against foreign research assistants and graduate students who were working in the IOF laboratory on visas. Specifically, Young complained that Geddes used such persons' visa status as a means of differential treatment and control, reminding the "visa persons" that he sponsored their visas and thus had the power to affect their right to stay in the United States. Young claims to have observed Geddes and Aitken berate and degrade a foreign graduate student, "threatening his visa status in the country and discussing it publicly in the laboratory." Compl. ¶ 20.

After Young began making noise about the treatment of the "visa persons", Geddes and Aitken instructed Pavlovic not to socialize with Young, told Pavlovic she would be fired if she supported Young, and warned Pavlovic that even if she did complain, no one would believe her. In early April 2011, Young made additional written and verbal complaints to the department chair about Geddes' mistreatment of the "visa persons" in the IOF laboratory. After learning of these complaints, on April 16, 2011, Geddes verbally threatened to discharge Young from the IOF laboratory. While Young remained a student at UMBC after the conversation with Geddes, Geddes implemented a plan to get her kicked out of the graduate program at UMBC, which ultimately succeeded: Young was dismissed from the program on May 21, 2012. On that same date, Pavlovic returned from an approximate threeweek visa-related trip to Serbia to discover what had happened to Young.

Thereafter, Aitken falsely informed Pavlovic that Young had complained that Pavlovic had improperly used her identification card to gain access to the laboratory and had tried to marry Young's boyfriend for an illegal green card. Aitken went on to advise Pavlovic that if UMBC's Human Resources Department heard of such things, Pavlovic would be terminated. Aitken further threatened that if Pavlovic did not cut off communication with Young, she would be fired. Pavlovic advised Aitken that she would not discontinue her relations with Young. Less than one month later and two weeks before Pavlovic's employment contract was to be renewed by UMBC, Geddes informed her that he would not renew her contract because he "was not happy with [her] scientific progress'" and "saw [her] surfing the internet several times.'" Compl. [Document 1] ¶ 16. However, Geddes offered Pavlovic a two-month contract to allow her to search for other employment.

B. Ability to Sue the Board

Plaintiffs allege that the Board is the entity that governs the University System of Maryland, of which UMBC is a constituent institution. Compl. at 3. The Board contends that it has no direct role in the operation of UMBC and/or statutory authority to make academic or employment decisions at UMBC. Plaintiffs disagree, arguing that the Board controls and approves the policies and procedures prohibiting discrimination at UMBC and is thus responsible when those controls fail as alleged in the Complaint.

According to the Education Article of the Maryland Code, the University System of Maryland is an "instrumentality" of Maryland and an "independent unit of State government", the government of which is vested in the Board, which consists of 17 members. See Md. Code Ann., Educ. § 12-102. The Board "[i]s responsible for the management of the University System of Maryland and has all the powers, rights, and privileges that go with that responsibility"; and may "[s]ue and be sued... in all courts." Id . § 12-104(b)(3), (c)(1). By statutory directive, the Board "shall delegate to the president of each constituent institution authority needed to manage that institution." Id . § 12-104(k)(1)(ii). However, the Board maintains responsibility to "develop policies and guidelines that... [p]rovide direction to the presidents of the constituent institutions on compliance with applicable law and policy." Id . § 12-104(k)(3)(i).

As provided by statute, the president of UMBC is the "chief executive officer of the institution"; is "responsible and accountable to the Board for the discipline and successful conduct of the institution and supervision of each of its departments"; and "serves at the pleasure of the Board of Regents." Id . § 12-109(c), (d)(1)-(2).

As stated in a recent decision by Judge Quarles of this Court, involving the Board and UMBC:

The Board asserts that from this structure, it is not responsible for any violations of the ADA by UMBC. Other than the statute, it has not provided any authority for this proposition, nor has the Court found any. Although the Board's management of UMBC has been delegated to Hrabowski by statute, see Md. Code Ann., Educ. § 12-104(k)(1), the statute is equally clear that the Board retains ultimate responsibility for the entire University System. See id. §§ 12-104(c)(1), 12-109(d)(2). Combined with the Board's capacity to "sue and be sued, " id. § 12-104(b)(3), these provisions indicate that the Board is a proper defendant in this case. Accordingly, the motion to dismiss will be denied.

Jean v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. Sys. of Md., CIV. WDQ-13-0117, 2013 WL 3873948, at *2 (D. Md. July 24, 2013) (footnotes omitted).

In the instant case, Plaintiffs allege that the Board knew of Geddes' and Aitken's alleged misconduct, failed to take any remedial action, and tolerated their behavior because the Department headed by them is heavily ...


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