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Osei v. University of Maryland University College

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 15, 2016



          DEBORAH K. CHASANOW United States District Judge.

         Presently pending and ready for resolution in this civil rights action are: (1) motions to dismiss filed by Defendants University of Maryland University College (“UMUC”), the Office of Financial Aid at UMUC (the “Financial Aid Office”), Javier Miyares, Julie Lindenmeier, Clairbourne Patty, Terrence Cooper, and Lynette O’Leary (collectively, the “Defendants”) (ECF Nos. 26; 27);[1] (2) a motion filed by Plaintiff Michael Osei (“Plaintiff”) to set a rule upon Defendants to serve court documents upon Plaintiff by both e-mail and postal mail (ECF No. 33); (3) Plaintiff’s motion in limine to preclude references to other cases Plaintiff brought against universities and educational entities and for leave to file terminating sanctions against Defendants (ECF No. 35); and (4) Plaintiff’s motion for leave to file a surreply (ECF No. 36). The issues have been briefed, and the court now rules, no hearing being deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the following reasons, Defendants’ motions to dismiss the complaint will be granted. Plaintiff’s remaining motions will be denied.

         I. Background[2]

         Plaintiff is originally from Ghana and immigrated to the United States to pursue educational opportunities. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 11-14). In the fall of 2014, UMUC accepted Plaintiff’s application for admission “to pursue courses toward[] a degree for Master of Science in Biotechnology with [a] specialty in Bioinformatics . . . which is mostly an online program.” (Id. ¶ 15). Plaintiff enrolled in graduate-level classes in the Fall 2014 semester and received federal student financial aid.[3] He also enrolled in two graduate-level courses in the Spring 2015 semester and received federal student aid. (Id. ¶ 17).

         During the spring months, Plaintiff apparently requested additional financial aid. On March 12, 2015, Plaintiff e-mailed officials at the United States Department of Education inviting them to “immediately intervene in a financial aid matter ongoing with the Financial Aid Department of [UMUC] that will cause irreparable damages to his right to his continued educational interests and undue financial burdens.” (ECF No. 1-1, at 7 (emphasis in original)).[4] In a subsequent March 23 e-mail to UMUC employees and Department of Education officials, Plaintiff explained his complaint:

Budget increase is what I requested for the Spring 2015 semester []. Instead, Mr. Stever of UMUC moved my not-as-of yet [S]ummer 2015 refund to [S]pring 2015, According to Ms. Lindenmeier, such movement of funds from [S]ummer 2015 to Spring 2015 is not right since ‘[S]ummer 2015 is not yet here.’ I agree. The record shows that I did not initially ask for movement of my summer aid but a budget increase which is what is right if student-lender needs additional funds.

(Id. at 11). On April 1, Plaintiff submitted a budget increase request for additional federal student financial aid due to extenuating circumstances. Ms. Lindenmeier informed Plaintiff by e-mail that decisions on such requests are given typically ten days after the Financial Aid Office receives the student’s completed appeal. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 20).

         On April 20, Plaintiff e-mailed Ms. Lindenmeier: “To reduce my own high educational costs and time, I hereby cancel my budget increase request entirely and withdraw my appeal. Hence, you can now disregard my appeal and cancel it.” (ECF No. 1-1, at 1 (emphasis in original); see ECF No. 1 ¶ 21). Ms. Lindenmeier sent to the UMUC Office of the Registrar a memo dated April 21:

Please accept this notice of violation of the Code of Student Conduct, UMUC Policy 151.00. We submit that [Plaintiff] violated UMUC Policy 151.00 Section III.N.
While a student of UMUC, [Plaintiff] submitted documentation from the City of Philadelphia and Plick and Associates, Forensic Engineers to be used to increase his cost of attendance and request additional federal aid. We confirmed that the information was not [Plaintiff’s] and the documentation [] was forged.
For the reasons set forth above, [Plaintiff] has violated the Code of Student Conduct 151.00 Section[] III.N. We request that this situation is reviewed and a decision is made if the student can continue to study with UMUC. Given the severe nature of the student’s behavior and the ongoing risk to UMUC, I recommend the sanction of expulsion.

         (ECF No. 1-1, at 3; see ECF No. 1 ¶ 23). Subsequently, on May 14, Mr. Patty in the Office of the Registrar wrote to advise Plaintiff that he would be charged with a student conduct violation for submitting false documentation to the Financial Aid Office related to his request for additional financial assistance. (See ECF Nos. 1-1, at 2; 1 ¶ 22). Upon receipt of Mr. Patty’s notice, Plaintiff sent an e-mail on May 15 requesting that UMUC “dismiss and/or withdraw [the] code violation [charge] as MOOT given . . . that [Plaintiff] voluntarily cancelled or withdrew his request for not-yet-decided funds.” (ECF No. 1-1, at 4; see ECF No. 1 ¶ 24). According to Plaintiff, he sent additional e-mails requesting that UMUC dismiss or withdraw the disciplinary action. (See ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 25-27).

         According to Plaintiff, UMUC informed him that a disciplinary hearing was scheduled on July 28 to resolve the student conduct charge against him. (Id. ¶ 30). On July 21, Plaintiff e-mailed Dr. Marie Cini, the Provost of UMUC, regarding the student conduct charge against him in order “to ensure that he [] exhausted internal remedies . . . before proceeding to federal court.” (Id. ¶ 33). On the same day, Plaintiff alleges, Mr. Patty informed him that the hearing remained scheduled for July 28. Furthermore, he informed Plaintiff that Ms. Lindenmeier was no longer employed at UMUC, and that Ms. O’Leary would serve in her place. (Id. ¶ 34). Defendants assert, and Plaintiff does not challenge, that Plaintiff did not participate in the July 28 hearing. Plaintiff was expelled from UMUC for his student conduct violations in August 2015. (ECF No. 26-1, at 3).

         Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, filed the complaint in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey on July 28, 2015. (ECF No. 1). Plaintiff seeks money damages and injunctive relief. Several weeks later, the action was transferred to this court. (ECF Nos. 16; 17). Plaintiff moved for emergency injunctive relief on September 2 (ECF No. 24), which the court denied (ECF No. 25). Shortly thereafter, Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. (ECF Nos. 26; 27). Plaintiff was provided with a Roseboro notice, which advised him of the pendency of the motion to dismiss and his entitlement to respond within 17 days. (ECF Nos. 28; 29); see Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309, 310 (4thCir. 1975) (holding that pro se plaintiffs should be advised of their right to file responsive material to a motion for summary judgment). Plaintiff responded in opposition, and Defendants replied. (ECF Nos. 30; 34). Plaintiff also moved to set a rule upon Defendants to serve court documents upon Plaintiff by both e-mail and postal mail. (ECF No. 33). In addition, he moved in limine to preclude references to other cases Plaintiff brought against universities and educational entities and for leave to file terminating sanctions against Defendants. (ECF No. 35).[5]Finally, he moved for leave to file a surreply. (ECF No. 36).[6]

         II. Standard of Review

         The purpose of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) is to test the sufficiency of the complaint. Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006). A complaint need only satisfy the standard of Rule 8(a), which requires a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). “Rule 8(a)(2) still requires a ‘showing, ’ rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 n.3 (2007). That showing must consist of more than “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” or “naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citations omitted).

         At this stage, all well-pleaded allegations in a complaint must be considered as true, Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 268 (1994), and all factual allegations must be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Harrison v. Westinghouse Savannah River Co., 176 F.3d 776, 783 (4th Cir. 1999) (citing Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993)); Brockington v. Boykins, 637 F.3d 503, 505-06 (4th Cir. 2011). In evaluating the complaint, unsupported legal allegations need not be accepted. Revene v. Charles Cnty. Comm’rs, 882 F.2d 870, 873 (4th Cir. 1989). Legal conclusions couched as factual allegations are insufficient, Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, as are conclusory factual allegations devoid of any reference to actual events. United Black Firefighters v. Hirst, 604 F.2d 844, 847 (4th Cir. 1979); see also Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged, but it has not ‘show[n] that the pleader is entitled to relief.’” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). Thus, “[d]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id.

         Generally, pro se pleadings are liberally construed and held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by lawyers. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). Even when pro se litigants are involved, however, the court cannot ignore a clear failure to allege facts that support a viable claim. Weller v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 391 (4th Cir. 1990).

         III. Analysis

         The lengthy, meandering six-count complaint does not clearly identify distinct causes of action asserted by Plaintiff.[7] As best the court can discern, Plaintiff asserts claims of: violations of the False Claims Act (“FCA”), 31 U.S.C. § 3729 et seq., and Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (“HEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1070 et seq. (Count I); violations of the United States Constitution and civil rights statutes, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1986 (Counts II and III); discrimination on the basis of race in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VI”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000d et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Count IV); libel, slander, defamation, and false light (Count V); and breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence (Count VI). As a threshold matter, in his response to the pending motion to dismiss, Plaintiff does not directly challenge all of Defendants’ specific legal contentions; rather, he repeats many of the same conclusory allegations and arguments in his opposition brief that appeared in the complaint.[8]

         A. The HEA and 34 C.F.R. § 668.16

         At the center of Plaintiff’s case is his apparent contention that UMUC wrongfully pursued charges of student conduct violations against him, ultimately leading to his expulsion in August 2015. Defendants maintain, and Plaintiff does not dispute, that the disciplinary action resulted from Plaintiff’s submission of fraudulent documents in support of his request for additional financial aid. Nowhere in the papers does Plaintiff deny submitting false financial aid documentation; rather, his claims stem from his allegation that UMUC lacked authority to impose disciplinary sanctions. The parties agree that Plaintiff was given notice of the student conduct charges against him and a hearing was scheduled on this matter. (ECF Nos. 1 ¶¶ 30-35; 1-1, at 2, 3). He did not attend the July 28 hearing, and UMUC expelled Plaintiff the following month. Plaintiff challenges the validity of the hearing “on grounds of lack of jurisdiction in violation of his constitutional due process which prevents [UMUC] from adjudicating a ‘Title IV of HEA matter’ as a student conduct code matter.” (ECF No. 1 ¶ 36). This appears to be the crux of Plaintiff’s argument - that the HEA and its regulations preclude UMUC from disciplining Plaintiff for submitting fraudulent documentation as part of a financial aid application.

         Plaintiff’s contention, however, is without merit. Title IV of the HEA established several types of student aid programs administered by the Department of Education, each with the aim of fostering access to higher education. See Career Coll. Ass’n v. Duncan, 796 F.Supp.2d 108, 113 (D.D.C. 2011), aff’d in part, rev’d in part sub nom. Ass’n of Private Sector Colleges & Universities v. Duncan, 681 F.3d 427 (D.C. Cir. 2012). Defendants argue that although “postsecondary institutions are required to report financial aid fraud, waste, and abuse, neither the HEA nor any related regulations control whether a postsecondary institution may impose discipline for violations of that institution’s [c]ode of [s]tudent [c]onduct.” (ECF No. 26-1, at 10); see 34 C.F.R. § 668.16. Moreover, “the HEA neither expressly nor impliedly provides Plaintiff[] with a private right of action” to enforce its aims. Moy v. Adelphi Inst., Inc., 866 F.Supp. 696, 705 (E.D.N.Y. 1994); (see ECF No. 1 ¶ 30 (“[T]here is no private right of action by a student against a school or a [s]chool against a student under Title IV of [the] HEA.”)).[9] Accordingly, Plaintiff’s HEA claim will be dismissed.

         B. Discrimination Claims

         Throughout the complaint, Plaintiff includes assertions of constitutional violations and violations of federal civil rights statutes. Even assuming arguendo that Plaintiff’s claims do not fail due to sovereign immunity and qualified immunity, he nonetheless has failed to provide factual allegations in support of his conclusory claims sufficient to withstand Defendants’ motion to dismiss. Plaintiff asserts claims of discrimination under Title VI and § 1981. Under Title VI, no person shall “be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” because of the person’s race, color, or national origin. 42 U.S.C. § 2000d. To state a claim under Title VI, a plaintiff must allege facts that show the defendant intentionally discriminated against him on the basis of race, color, or national origin, and that defendant receives federal financial assistance. Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 280 (2001). Section 1981 provides, in pertinent part, that “[a]ll persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 1981(a). The statute broadly defines the term “make and enforce contracts” as “the making, performance, modification, and termination of contracts, and the enjoyment of all benefits, privileges, terms, and conditions of the contractual relationship.” 42 U.S.C. § 1981(b). To state a claim under § 1981, a plaintiff must establish “purposeful, racially discriminatory actions that affect at least one of the contractual aspects listed in § 1981(b).” Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 165 F.3d 1015, ...

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