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Smith v. State

United States District Court, D. Maryland

April 4, 2018

ALTON W. SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND, ET AL, Defendants Count Title

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          MARVIN J. GARBIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Court has before it Defendants' Motion to Dismiss or, In the Alternative for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 18], Plaintiff's Cross Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 21], Defendants' Motion for Leave to Supplement Their Motion To Dismiss Or, In the Alternative, For Summary Judgment [ECF No. 26], and the materials submitted relating thereto. The Court has held a hearing and has had the benefit of arguments of counsel.

         Both sides have submitted materials in addition to the Complaint regarding these motions. The Court has not excluded these materials from consideration. When “matters outside the pleading are presented to and not excluded by the court, the [12(b)(6)] motion shall be treated as one for summary judgment and disposed of as provided in Rule 56.” Laughlin v. Metro. Washington Airports Auth., 149 F.3d 253, 260- 61 (4th Cir. 1998); Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). Because the Court has relied on supplemental affidavits and documents filed outside of the pleadings, it will treat the pending motions as motions for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Asserted Claims

         After his college teaching contract was not renewed in 2016, Plaintiff Alton W. Smith (“Smith” or “Plaintiff”) brought an action against his former employer, Baltimore City Community College (“BCCC”), [1] the State of Maryland, and three Individual Defendants: Tonja L. Ringgold (“Ringgold”), Enyinnaya Iweha (“Iweha”), and Cynthia Webb (“Webb”).[2]

         Plaintiff asserts claims in Seven Counts:

Count
Title

I

Breach of Contract (All Defendants)

II

Interference with Economic Relationship (Iweha only)

III

Interference with Economic Relationship (Webb only)

IV

Interference with Economic Relationship (Ringgold only)

V

Conspiracy to Interfere with Economic Relationship (Iweha, Webb, and Ringgold)

VI

Deprivation of Property Without Due Process under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (All Defendants)

VII

Deprivation of Property Without Due Process under Maryland Declaration of Rights, Art. 24 (All Defendants)

         B. Background

         Plaintiff was an associate professor at BCCC who taught electronics courses from 2005 to 2011 and business courses from 2011 until 2016. Compl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 2.

         In August 2015, Smith and BCCC entered into a 3-year teaching contract (“Contract”) which required yearly renewal and ran from August 15, 2015 to June 2, 2018. Id. ¶ 6. Under the Contract, he must carry a semester teaching load of 15 Teaching Assignment Units (“TAUs”). Id. ¶ 7. His rights and duties as a faculty member were listed in his Contract and in the BCCC Faculty Handbook (“Handbook”).[3]

         1. Academic Program and Course Changes at BCCC

         From 2005 to 2013, Plaintiff taught classes in the Electronic Technology and Telecommunications Program (“ETP”). Def.'s Mem. at 2, ECF No. 18-1.[4]

         In 2009, BCCC notified faculty members that it will eliminate some academic programs for the long term, and in 2011, BCCC's Board of Trustees approved the elimination of 14 programs, including ETP. Def.'s Mem. at 2-3, ECF No. 18-1. Faculty in the ETP program, including Smith, could teach other classes for which they were qualified or could take graduate courses paid for by BCCC to obtain necessary qualifications to teach other programs. Iweha Aff. ¶ 3, ECF No. 18-10.

         When the ETP program was eliminated, Plaintiff was not qualified to teach in other discipline-specific programs (except for introductory business courses), and refused the offer to pursue education that would have given him the necessary qualifications. Id. ¶¶ 4-5. Nevertheless, BCCC allowed him to teach-out the remaining ETP students and to teach introductory (but not discipline-specific) courses in the business program. Id. ¶ 5; Webb Aff. ¶ 12, ECF No. 18-12.

         In 2013, BCCC created a new program in “Robotics/Mechatronics, ” and “paid for [] Smith to attend training classes that introduced him to the equipment that would be used in the program.” Def.'s Mem. at 4, ECF No. 18-1. Smith took those equipment introduction courses but declined to obtain the requisite graduate degree that would qualify him to actually teach robotics courses to students. Id. at 5. Ultimately, BCCC rejected Smith's application for a teaching position in the program and hired an individual who had a PhD in Electronics and Mechanical Engineering. Id.; Iweha Aff. ¶ 6, ECF No. 18-10. Following the denial of his application, Plaintiff filed an EEO complaint against Iweha. Smith Aff. ¶ 5, ECF No. 22-2. On April 11, 2014, the investigation was closed on the basis that the discrimination allegations were unsubstantiated.[5] Pl.'s Cross Mot. Ex. 2d, ECF No. 22-6.

         In July 2013, in response to state legislative action, BCCC reduced the number of classes that were deemed “required” to receive a degree for many of its programs, and downgraded certain “required” courses to “electives.”[6] Def.'s Mem. at 5, ECF No. 18-1; Ringgold Aff. ¶¶ 6-7, ECF No. 18-11. Some of Plaintiff's courses were eliminated due to these decisions and subsequent declining enrollment. Def.'s Mem. at 5, ECF No. 18-1; Ringgold Aff. ¶ 8, ECF No. 18-11.

         2. Events Leading Up to Termination

         In November 2015, Smith was supervised by Defendants Webb and Iweha. Compl. ¶¶ 12-13. As a result of the changes in academic programs and courses, supra, Plaintiff was left with teaching only 6 TAUs for the 2016 Spring Semester (i.e., two sections of an introductory business course) instead of the required 15 TAUs required by his contract.[7] Iweha Aff. ¶ 9, ECF No. 18-10; Def.'s Mot. Ex. 3, ECF No. 18-5.

         In early 2016, Defendants Webb and Iweha met with Plaintiff to discuss alternative options for qualifying TAUs, but Plaintiff did not offer viable suggestions as to how he could meet his required TAUs for the semester.[8] Iweha Aff. ¶ 10, ECF No. 18-10; Webb Aff. ¶¶ 22-23, ECF No. 18-12.

         Defendant Webb gave Plaintiff a “Poor” performance evaluation for the 2015-2016 academic school year, based on the low TAUs and her evaluation of his work. Webb Aff. ¶ 25, ECF No. 18-12.

         Webb and Smith met on March 10, 2016 to review his 2015- 2016 evaluation. The evaluation included a statement that his “contract will not be renewed for the fall 2016 semester.” Def.'s Mot. Ex. 1 at 9, ECF No. 18-3.[9] Plaintiff saw the evaluation, became angry, and was escorted out by security because Webb felt threatened by his presence in her office. Webb Aff. ¶ 26, ECF No. 18-12. When security arrived, Smith “signed the evaluation” and took it with him. It was later retrieved and “placed in his mailbox.” Id.

         On March 16, 2016, Smith wrote a follow-up letter to challenge the 2015-2016 evaluation, to which Webb responded. See Def.'s Mot. Exs. 6 and 7, ECF Nos. 18-8 and 18-9. Webb revised a portion of his 2015-2016 evaluation in response to his letter “but the overall rating remained unchanged.” Webb Aff. ¶ 27, ECF No. 18-12.

         On June 2, 2016, Defendant Ringgold sent Plaintiff a formal termination letter stating that his teaching contract would not be renewed because of poor performance, discontinuation of the electronics program, and his failure to qualify to teach any discipline-specific business courses.[10] Def.'s Mot. Ex. 2, ECF No. 18-4. The effective date of termination was stated to be June 5, 2016. Id. However, due to an address change, Smith did not receive this letter until September 7, 2016. Smith Aff. ¶ 23, ECF No. 22-2.

         On June 9, 2016, Plaintiff received a letter from the Maryland Department of Budget & Management advising him that his health insurance was terminated and advising him about his right to COBRA benefits. Smith Aff. ¶ 21, ECF No. 22-2; Pl.'s Cross Mot. Ex. 2m, ECF No. 22-15. Although this June 9 letter is not in the record, Plaintiff's lawyer wrote a letter to the President of BCCC on June 30, 2016, referring to the June 9 letter and stating that her client had not voluntarily been terminated from his position:

“Mr. Smith has received a letter dated June 9, 2016 from the Maryland Department of Budget & Management advising him of his right to COBRA benefits due to loss of health insurance effective June 16, 2016 resulting from his separation from the State of Maryland employment. Mr. Smith has not voluntarily separated from employment.”

Pl.'s Cross Mot. Ex. 2m, ECF No. 22-15.

         Having received no reply to his attorney's June 30 letter, Smith contacted a human resources specialist at BCCC in early July to confirm the dates of his employment at the College. Rutah Aff. ¶ 2, ECF No. 18-14. The human resources specialist stated that Smith had been employed with BCCC from September 2005 to June 2016 and confirmed that Smith had health insurance coverage during that period. Rutah Aff. ¶ 2, ECF No. 18-14. This conversation was memorialized in writing by human resources on July 5, 2016. Def.'s Mot. Ex. 4, ECF No. 18-6.

         On September 8, 2016, a day after he received the June 2 formal termination letter, Plaintiff requested a grievance hearing. Def.'s Mot. Ex. 13, ECF No. 18-15. On November 18, 2016, he presented a statement at a “Level 2” grievance hearing conducted by Defendant Ringgold.[11] Ringgold Aff. ¶ 14, ECF No. 18-11. In this “hearing, ” Smith's attorney was not allowed to participate and Smith was not allowed to call witnesses. Smith Aff. ¶ 24, ECF No. 22-2. Instead, Smith simply read a pre-prepared statement. Id. Defendant Ringgold considered the statement and upheld the termination decision. Ringgold Aff. ¶ 14, ECF No. 18-11. Plaintiff's requests for a “Level 3” hearing and a meeting with the BCCC president were denied. Smith Aff. ¶ 26, ECF No. 22-2.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Plaintiff and Defendants seek summary judgment by the instant cross-motions.

         A motion for summary judgment shall be granted if the pleadings and supporting documents “show[] that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         The well-established principles pertinent to summary judgment motions can be distilled to a simple statement: [t]he Court may look at the evidence presented in regard to a motion for summary judgment through the non-movant's rose-colored glasses, but must view it realistically. After so doing, the essential question is whether a reasonable fact finder could return a verdict for the non-movant or whether the movant would, at trial, be entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See, e.g., Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-323 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Shealy v. Winston, 929 F.2d 1009, 1012 (4th Cir. 1991). Thus, in order to defeat a motion for summary judgment, “the party opposing the motion must present evidence of specific facts from which the finder of fact could reasonably find for him or her.” Mackey v. Shalala, 43 F.Supp.2d 559, 564 (D. Md. 1999) (emphasis added).

         When evaluating a motion for summary judgment, the Court must bear in mind that the “[s]ummary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole, which are designed ‘to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action.'” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 327 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 1).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Breach of Contract (Count I)

         Defendants argue that the breach of contract claim should be dismissed as to the Individual Defendants because it does not state a valid claim and that it is barred against all Defendants by sovereign immunity.

         1. Individual Defendants

         The employment contract at issue is between “the Board of Trustees of the Baltimore City Community College” and Plaintiff. Def.'s Mot. Ex. 3, ECF No. 18-5. Thus, the Individual Defendants, who are not parties to the contract, owed no individual contractual obligation to Plaintiff. Taylor v. NationsBank, N.A., 365 Md. 166, 175, 776 A.2d 645, 651 (2001) (“To prevail in an action for breach of contract, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed the plaintiff a contractual obligation . . .”).

         2. Timing and Sovereign Immunity

         In Maryland, sovereign immunity against breach of contract claims against the state government is waived only if the claims are brought “within 1 year after the later of: (1) the date on which the claim arose; or (2) the completion of the contract that gives rise to the claim.” Md. Code Ann., State Gov't § 12-202. Section § 12-202 functions as a “condition precedent” for bringing a contract claim against Maryland and/or its officers. Magnetti v. Univ. of Maryland, 402 Md. 548, 564 (2007).

         The Complaint was filed in state court on August 23, 2017. Defendants contend that Plaintiff's claim arose on June 5, 2016, the date of his effective termination by the June 2 letter. Def.'s Resp. at 3, ECF No. 24. Plaintiff counters that any breach did not occur until the June 2 termination letter was received on September 7, 2016. Pl.'s Mem. at 10, ECF No. 22.

         The breach of contract claim is based upon the termination of Plaintiff's employment without proper notice and procedures. Compl. ¶¶ 21-23. The alleged breach - if there was one -occurred on June 5, 2016, the date of effective termination. Def.'s Mot. Ex. 2, ECF No. 18-4. Accordingly, Plaintiff's breach of contract ...


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