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Buxton v. Kurtinitis

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 25, 2015

SANDRA KURTINITIS, et al., Defendants.


ELLEN L. HOLLANDER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Dustin Buxton filed suit against five employees of the Community College of Baltimore County ("CCBC"), in their official and individual capacities, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In his Complaint, to which exhibits are appended, he alleges violations of the Free Speech Clause ("Count I") and the Establishment Clause ("Count II") of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as well as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment ("Count III").

According to Buxton, defendant Adrienne Dougherty, Program Director and Coordinator of the Radiation Therapy Program ("RTP") at CCBC, id. ¶ 11, violated his rights "by denying [him] admission to [the RTP] on the basis of his expression of his religious beliefs and viewpoint" during the admissions process. Id. ¶ 71. Further, Buxton alleges that defendant Sandra Kurtinitis, President of CCBC, id. ¶ 9, violated his rights when she "refused to correct" Dougherty's decision. Id. ¶ 73. Defendants Charles Martino, Academic Advisor for the School of Health Professions, id. ¶ 12, and Ebony Thomas, Coordinator for Selective Admissions for the School of Health Professions, id. ¶ 13, allegedly violated Buxton's rights by "endorsing and approving" Dougherty's decision. Id. ¶ 72. In addition, Buxton alleges that defendant Carol Eustis, Dean of Instruction for the School of Health Professions, id. ¶ 13, violated his rights "by refusing to correct Defendant Dougherty's decision... and by placing... [an] 85 year Dean's Hold' on Plaintiff's academic status." Id. ¶ 75.

Defendants have moved to dismiss, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). See ECF 17 ("Motion"); ECF 17-1 ("Memo"). Buxton opposes the Motion, ECF 20 ("Opposition"), [1] and defendants have replied. ECF 21. Buxton also filed a Motion for Leave to File Sur-Reply, ECF 22, which defendants oppose. ECF 23. Plaintiff has replied. ECF 24.

The motions have been fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary to resolve them. In order to ensure a full and fair consideration of the parties' arguments, I will grant plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File Sur-Reply. And, for the reasons set forth below, I will grant in part and deny in part defendants' Motion.

I. Factual Background

Buxton's claims are related to those raised by plaintiff Brandon Jenkins in a case also pending in this Court, captioned Jenkins v. Kurtinitis, ELH-14-01346 (D. Md. filed Apr. 21, 2014).[2] Buxton and Jenkins are represented by the same lawyers, and all of the defendants in both cases are also represented by the same attorneys.

In Jenkins, the plaintiff alleged that Dougherty violated the Free Speech and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment, as well as Article 36 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, by denying him admission to the RTP based on faith-related statements he made in his admissions interview. See ECF 1. Jenkins also alleged that Kurtinitis, along with two other CCBC employees who are not named in this action, Mark McColloch and Richard Lilley, violated his rights by "endorsing and approving" Dougherty's decision. ECF 1 ¶ 61.

The defendants in Jenkins moved to dismiss all claims, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6); their motion was very similar to the Motion sub judice . See ELH-14-01346, ECF 23; ELH-14-02836, ECF 17. In Jenkins, I granted in part and denied in part the motion to dismiss. See Jenkins v. Kurtinitis, ELH-14-01346 (ECF 29), 2015 WL 1285355, at *39-40 (D. Md. Mar. 20, 2015). In particular, I denied the defendants' motion with respect to Jenkins's Establishment Clause claim against Dougherty, in both her official and individual capacities, and his claim against Dougherty in her individual capacity, under Article 36 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, to the extent it mirrored Jenkins's Establishment Clause claim. But, I limited Jenkins's Establishment Clause claim against Dougherty in her official capacity to prospective, injunctive relief only, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Eleventh Amendment. As to all other claims, I granted the defendants' motion, with prejudice.

As stated, Buxton's claims are very similar to those of Jenkins. Buxton's claims hinge, for the most part, on the following allegations, ECF 1 ¶¶ 27, 28 (alterations added):

27. Mr. Buxton recalls that early in the [2013 admissions] interview, the panelists asked him the broad question, "What do you base your morals on?" Mr. Buxton simply answered, "My faith." Mr. Buxton made no other mention of his faith or religion.
28. Nonetheless, in a written review of Mr. Buxton's interview, Defendant Dougherty stated that Mr. Buxton had lost points on his interview score because, "He [Mr. Buxton] also brought up religion a great deal during the interview. Yes, this is a field that involves death and dying; but religion cannot be brought up in the clinic by therapist or students."

Buxton further alleges that Dougherty "is responsible for overseeing and coordinating the processing of applications for the [RTP], as well as academic advising, testing, evaluation, and admissions to the program." Id. ¶ 11. He included as an exhibit to his Complaint a copy of the evaluation of his 2013 application written by Dougherty. See ECF 1-3 at 6; ECF 1 ¶ 45, 28 (alleging Dougherty authored evaluation). The evaluation states, in its entirety, as follows, ECF 1-3 at 6 (emphasized included in the Complaint):

The student did not receive very good feedback from his observation day. He told one of the therapists that he assumed he was guaranteed a spot in the program. He did state that he seemed like a bother to some of the therapists; however they felt he asked questions at inappropriate times, interrupting them at times, and were related to the engineering aspect of the field. In addition, the therapists said that he wrote down/typed everything they said. It was also noted that during a simulation procedure in which IV contrast was injected, he stated something along the lines that he did not sign on for this. This is minor, but the student did not follow directions when asked to initial the admissions process. When responding to questions in the written sample, he did not fully read the questions and respond to them in the role of a student. The interview committee felt he was not a good fit for this field. His answers to several of the questions were very textbook and lacked interpersonal skills. When asked about important characteristics that a therapist should have he responded not to socialize or fraternize' and then in the next sentence he brought up a sense of levity and that it is good to laugh. He also brought up religion a great deal during the interview. Yes, this is a field that involves death and dying; but religion cannot be brought up in the clinic by therapist or students. He mentioned plans to go onto complete a Dosimetry Program, but I do not think he has researched this career path fully. University of Maryland does offer a 1-year program, but they receive approximately 100 applicants and have only 2 seats available. Physics and Dosimetry may be a possible career path for him, but he lacks the interpersonal skills for this field. If this is something he wants to continue to pursue, I would suggest at least a full week of observation at another facility. His pre-requisite grades could be more competitive (18/30). Linda Brothers may be able to assist with his interpersonal skills.

Buxton also asserts that there is a "pattern and practice of discrimination against students' expressions of religious beliefs and viewpoints" by CCBC officials. ECF 1 ¶¶ 75, 83. In support of his assertion, Buxton expressly incorporates some of the facts alleged in Jenkins's Complaint into his own Complaint. See id. ¶¶ 42, 43. In addition, Buxton complains about a "Dean's Hold" placed on his school account two weeks after his attorneys sent a letter to CCBC outlining his concerns, which temporarily prevented him from registering for a class. ECF 1 ¶¶ 52-56. Buxton places blame for the "Dean's Hold" on Eustis. Id. ¶ 74.

Additional facts are included in the Discussion.

II. Discussion

Defendants' Motion is predicated on Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). I incorporate here the applicable standard of review, set forth at length in Jenkins, 2015 WL 1285355, at *5-7.

In my view, Buxton's Free Speech and Establishment Clause claims against Dougherty and Kurtinitis are essentially indistinguishable from those brought by Jenkins against the same defendants. And- except for Buxton's claim with respect to the "Dean's Hold"-Buxton's First Amendment claims against Martino, Thomas, and Eustis are indistinguishable from Jenkins's claims against McColloch and Lilley. Accordingly, as ...

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