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Uzoechi v. Wilson

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 24, 2018

EMMANUEL CHUKWUEBUKA UZOECHI, Plaintiff
v.
DR. DAVID WILSON, et al., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM

          James K. Bredar Chief Judge

         This case comes before the Court on remand from the Fourth Circuit. Last year, this Court dismissed Plaintiff's complaint. (See Order, ECF No. 26.) Plaintiff appealed the dismissal, but the Fourth Circuit determined that this Court had left two claims unaddressed and therefore dismissed the appeal and remanded the matter to this Court to address those remaining claims. Uzoechi v. Wilson, 713 Fed.Appx. 223 (4th Cir. 2018). Upon receiving the mandate from the Court of Appeals, this Court reopened the case and gave the parties one month to provide additional briefing on those claims. (See Order reopening case, ECF No. 35.) In response, the Defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings or, alternatively, for summary judgment (ECF No. 37). Plaintiff has responded in opposition (ECF No. 39) and the Defendants have replied (ECF No. 40). The Defendants' motion is therefore ripe for review. There is no need to hold a hearing to resolve the matter. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). Plaintiff has failed to overcome various immunities, properly state claims, or provide evidence demonstrating essential elements of both claims. Accordingly, the Court will grant the Defendants' motion and, construing that motion as one for summary judgment, grant judgment in the Defendants' favor on both counts. Combined with the earlier order of dismissal (ECF No. 26), this now amounts to dismissal of Plaintiff's entire case, and the Clerk will be instructed to close the case.

         I. Background

         The Court will treat the Defendants' motion as one for summary judgment. Plaintiff was on notice that the Court may treat the Defendants' motion as such given the title of the Defendants' motion, see Pevia v. Shearin, Civ. No. ELH-13-2912, 2015 WL 629001, at *3 (D. Md. Feb. 10, 2015), and he responded to the substance of the Defendants' exhibits, attached an exhibit of his own in opposition, and frequently relies on evidence outside the corners of his complaint. Given that the Court is treating the motion as one for summary judgment the following facts, and the inferences to be drawn from them, are taken in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, who is the party opposing the motion. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007).

         a. Plaintiff's interaction with MSU

         Plaintiff attended Morgan State University (“MSU” or “the University”) starting in 2011. (See Transcript, ECF No. 37-20.) In February 2015, a female MSU student (“the Complainant”) falsely accused Plaintiff of sexual assault. (See Wiggins Email, ECF No. 37-2; Letter to USCIS, ECF No. 39-2.). The incident was reported to the MSU Police, and Plaintiff was indicted in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on February 24, 2015 for rape in the second degree and sexual offense in the second degree. (Indictment, ECF No. 37-4.) Plaintiff was arrested and placed in custody. (See Compl. § III.4, ECF No. 1 (alleging that Plaintiff was in custody from “02/25/15 - 08/27/15”).) Three days later, Defendant Seymour E. Chambers, Chief Judicial Officer in the Office of Student Rights & Responsibilities at MSU, sent Plaintiff a notice of interim suspension. (ECF No. 37-6.) This notice stated that, pursuant to Section 8(e) of the University's Code of Student Conduct (“Student Code”), Plaintiff was suspended pending disciplinary proceedings. (Id.; see Student Code, ECF No. 37-5.)

         On March 13, 2015, Defendant Chambers sent Plaintiff a “Notice of Judicial Conference.” (ECF No. 37-7.) This notice stated that Plaintiff had been accused of violating a specific section of the Student Code, and that he was “directed to report” to a judicial conference on March 19. (Id.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel, and on March 18, 2015, Plaintiff's counsel informed Defendant Chambers that Plaintiff was detained at Central Booking in Baltimore and therefore would be unable to attend on March 19. (ECF No. 37-9.) He requested that the “judicial conference” scheduled for March 19 be “postponed indefinitely.” (Id.) He also requested that the interim suspension be postponed. (Id.) It does not appear that Defendant Chambers replied, or that he postponed the conference or suspension.

         On April 6, 2015, Defendant Chambers again sent Plaintiff a notice. (ECF No. 37-10.) This document included notice of two charges against Plaintiff for violations of the Student Code, and stated that Plaintiff was required to attend a hearing scheduled for April 21. (Id.) Plaintiff's counsel responded in a letter dated April 16. (ECF No. 37-11.) Plaintiff's counsel wrote that Plaintiff would be unable to attend the April 21 hearing because he was still in jail. Plaintiff's counsel again requested indefinite postponement of the hearing and of the interim suspension. (Id.) Again, it does not appear that he received a response.

         The hearing was not postponed. On April 21, while Plaintiff was still in jail, a Judicial Board held a disciplinary hearing. (See Official Notice of Decision and Sanction(s), ECF No. 37-12.) According to the Official Notice of this hearing later sent to Plaintiff, the Judicial Board found Plaintiff “Responsible” for sexual misconduct, and violations of University regulations, procedures, and policies. (Id.) The Judicial Board found, by a preponderance of the evidence, five facts, including that Plaintiff was in the Complainant's room on the night in question, that she “told him several times that she did not want to engage in any sexual activity” and that Plaintiff “did not comply with her wishes.” (Id.) The Student Code permits accused students to present witnesses and affidavits at a disciplinary hearing, but Plaintiff did not attempt to call witnesses or submit an affidavit.

         In the Official Notice of the disposition of this hearing, beneath the “Finding of Fact(s)” section, it read:

SANCTIONS): Subsequent to the finding(s) of responsibility, the following sanction(s) have been recommended by the University Judicial Board to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs, and are effective as of April 21, 2015:
•EXPULSION-Permanent separation of the student from the University. A notation will appear on the student's transcript. The student will also be barred from the University premises. A student who is expelled from the University is not eligible for the return of tuition, room or board fees, or other fees paid or owed to the University. Expulsion requires administrative review and approval by the President.

(Id.) Based on this document it would seem that the Judicial Board recommended a sanction of expulsion, which then needed to be reviewed and approved by the President. Plaintiff, however, maintains that he was in fact expelled. Given the standard of review, the Court will assume that he was expelled. Regardless, it is understandable that someone who read this letter, perhaps quickly and in a stressful situation, would believe that they had in fact been expelled from the University, even if they were not. (The effective date certainly implies expulsion.)

         The Official Notice was sent on April 28 and informed Plaintiff of his right to appeal. It appears that Plaintiff timely appealed on or about May 7. (See October 13 Letter, ECF No. 37-15 (referencing May 7 appeal); Aff. Dr. Kevin M. Banks ¶ 6, ECF No. 37-22 (referencing “May 2015 appeal”); Letter to USCIS (stating that Plaintiff's “Lawyer submitted an appeal to the University on May 7th, 2015).) It is unclear what the substance of the appeal was.

         On August 26, 2015, Plaintiff's criminal charges were dropped by the State's Attorney for Baltimore City. (August 28 Letter, ECF No. 37-14.) The Court will briefly note that this is all it knows of the disposition of the criminal charges against Plaintiff. The Court is only aware that the charges were dropped, not why, and that Plaintiff was released from custody the following day, on August 27. (See Compl. § III.4.) On August 28, Plaintiff's counsel sent a letter to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs informing them that the charges had been dropped and requesting that “the decision to expel [Plaintiff] be overturned.” (August 28 Letter.) For unexplained reasons, no one at MSU appears to have acted on Plaintiff's May 7 appeal or responded to Plaintiff's counsel's August 28 letter.

         Sometime in the fall of 2015, Plaintiff obtained new counsel, and on October 13, 2015, that counsel sent a letter to Defendant Dr. Kevin Banks, Vice President of Student Affairs at MSU. In that letter, Plaintiff's new counsel explained that the charges against Plaintiff had been dropped, and he asked that “the expulsion be removed from his record” because Plaintiff was trying to transfer to another institution. (October 13 Letter.) Plaintiff's new counsel also inquired as to the status of Plaintiff's May 7 appeal. (Id.)

         According to Defendant Banks, after he received this letter, he reviewed Plaintiff's file. (Aff. Dr. Banks ¶ 6.) According to Defendant Banks, this review “revealed” that Plaintiff's appeal was “not in the file” and that the University had never acted on the recommended expulsion by the Judicial Board (again, Plaintiff maintains that he was expelled). (Id.) According to Defendant Banks, he somehow “confirmed” that Plaintiff had filed a timely appeal, and then met with Plaintiff's new counsel on December 3, 2015 “to hear Plaintiff's appeal.” (Id.) Defendant Banks then wrote a memorandum to MSU's President, Defendant Dr. David Wilson, “recommending that the recommended sanction be modified.” (Id.; see December 17 Memorandum, ECF No. 37-16.)

         In this memorandum, Defendant Banks noted several “circumstances surrounding this case” which lead him to recommend that Plaintiff's sanction be modified. (December 17 Memo.) Defendant Banks explained that Plaintiff had been unable to attend the hearing due to incarceration and that “[a]lthough the Code of Student Conduct allows a hearing to proceed without the accused present . . . in this case, hearing from the Accused may have enhanced the trier of facts' ability to assess the evidence.” (Id.) Defendant Banks also highlighted issues with the Judicial Board hearing itself, including that the Complainant apparently testified that she kissed Plaintiff on the cheek after signing him out of the building, i.e., after the alleged sexual misconduct. It is not entirely clear what Defendant Banks made of this testimony, but his phrasing in the memorandum seems to suggest he believed that this was exculpatory evidence that was perhaps not given enough weight by the Judicial Board.[1] Based on these issues, Defendant Banks recommended that instead of expelling Plaintiff, the final sanction should be either a warning or “probation with a directive that [Plaintiff] have no contact with the Complainant.” (Id.) According to handwritten notes on the memorandum, Defendant Wilson accepted the second proposed sanction on December 17, 2015. (Id.)

         Plaintiff was not notified of that decision for over one month. On January 20, 2016, Defendant Banks sent Plaintiff a letter informing him that the President had not accepted the recommended sanction of expulsion, but that Plaintiff was on probation for the Spring 2016 Semester and that he was forbidden from having contact with the Complainant. (January 20 Letter, ECF No. 37-17.) This letter informed Plaintiff that he could appeal the decision, and Plaintiff apparently did. (Id; see Mar. 19 Email, ECF No. 37-19.) The sanction, however, was not overturned. In an email sent to Plaintiff on March 19, 2016, Defendant Banks informed Plaintiff that Plaintiffs “probationary status [would] remain in effect until the end of the semester.” (Mar. 19 Email.) However, Defendant Banks noted in the email, “upon completion of the semester, I will rescind the probation so you will not have a disciplinary record upon graduation.” (Id.)

         It appears that Defendant Banks made good on that promise. Plaintiff graduated from MSU in the spring of 2016 with a 3.828 GPA. (See Transcript.) There is no record of a disciplinary infraction on Plaintiffs transcript.

         b. Plaintiffs complaint in this Court

         Plaintiff, now without counsel, filed a complaint on December 13, 2016 in this Court naming several University officials as Defendants, as well as the State's Attorney who prosecuted Plaintiff, Stacie Sawyer (“Defendant Sawyer”). Plaintiff did not name the State of Maryland as a Defendant, nor did he seem to name MSU, although he did include MSU in a parenthetical in his caption, and he requested injunctive relief against the State of Maryland. (See Compl. pp. 1, 7-8.)

Plaintiff filed a form complaint, and under “Statement of Claim” wrote:
1- On April 28th 2015, Seymour E Chambers (Morgan State University) violated the plaintiffs Title IX act of 1972. He wasn't granted due process to attend the hearing that took place on campus; the plaintiff was in detention while the hearing went on. On this same day, the university failed to protect the plaintiff from such a false and destructive allegation. The plaintiffs F-1 status was also terminated on a false basis.
•Mr. Seymour E Chamber's OFFICIAL NOTICE OF DECISION AND SANCTION(s) would explain the above complaint.
2- After failing to protect the plaintiff, Dr. Kevin Banks, Mr. Seymour E Chambers and President David Wilson (Morgan State University) demonstrated gross NEGLIGENCE while handling the allegation made against the plaintiff. Their negligence resulted in the plaintiffs inability to effectively transfer to another institution (Towson University) since he had already suffered defamation at Morgan State University. The plaintiff was also very worried about his safety especially as violent crimes were rampant on campus. This act of NEGLIGENCE is supported ...

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