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Williams v. Morgan State University

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 30, 2019

MICHELE WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY, et al. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          George L. Russell, III United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants Morgan State University (the “University”) and DeWayne Wickham's (“Dean Wickham”) Defendants' Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 5). This case arises from the termination of Plaintiff Michele Williams' University employment in 2017. The Motion is fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D.Md. 2018). For the reasons outlined below, the Court will grant the Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND [1]

         The University, a State agency in Baltimore, Maryland, hired Plaintiff Michele Williams on January 2, 2014 as the Director of Broadcast Operations for its television and radio stations, including WEAA 88.9 FM (“WEAA”). (1st Am. Compl. ¶¶ 6, 10, 18-20, ECF No. 1-12). The University holds a license administered by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) for the operation of its radio frequency. (Id. ¶¶ 22- 23). The University receives federal funding, including from the U.S. Department of Education (“DoE”) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (“CPB”), which support its broadcasting operations, including WEAA. (Id. ¶¶ 21, 25-30). The University also receives funding from the State of Maryland, which has received funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “ARRA”). (Id. ¶¶ 39-40). The FCC license and public funding come with various legal obligations, including reporting requirements. (Id. ¶¶ 34-35). As Director of Broadcast Operations, Williams was responsible for management and oversight of the broadcast operations, including scheduling certain programming and certifying the audited financial statements the University submitted to CPB. (Id. ¶¶ 20, 45, 67).

         In March 2016, WEAA hosted a public debate featuring the Democratic candidates for Mayor of Baltimore. (Id. ¶ 41). Encouraged by that party primary debate, Williams began organizing a debate for the four general election candidates to be held on November 3, 2016. (Id. ¶¶ 43-45). In emails leading up to the debate, Williams told her supervisor, Dean Wickham, and University President David Wilson (“President Wilson”) that, per FCC rules, each candidate would be provided equal time during the debate, and President Wilson agreed. (Id. ¶¶ 46-49). After the debate was scheduled, Catherine Pugh, the Democratic candidate, emailed Dean Wickham to tell him she could not attend the debate but “would be interested in participating in an on-air interview at another time prior to the election.” (Id. ¶ 50). Wickham forwarded Pugh's email to Williams, instructing Williams to cancel the debate because not all the candidates would be participating. (Id. ¶ 51). These instructions were “contradictory to the previously described requirement that a non-attending candidate be provided an interview on-air, ” and Williams inferred that Dean Wickham favored Pugh and was violating FCC regulations. (Id. ¶¶ 53-58). After the debate was cancelled, and per an FCC regulation regarding “Equal opportunities, ” 47 C.F.R. § 73.1941, Williams scheduled air time for the Republican and Green Party candidates at their requests and offered time to Pugh to match the time the Independent candidate had already received. (Id. ¶¶ 60-62). Dean Wickham then sent Williams “threatening text messages and emails, ” including telling her that her actions would “not end well” for her. (Id. ¶¶ 63-64). Williams told President Wilson, University Provost Gloria Gibson (“Dr. Gibson”), the University's Vice President of Human Resources, and others that Dean Wickham had violated the Hatch Act, 5 U.S.C. § 7323 (2018), FCC Regulation 47 C.F.R. § 73.1941 (2018), and state and federal law concerning political activity by a state agency receiving federal funding. (Id. ¶ 65).

         Also in late 2016, Williams “began noticing serious discrepancies with respect to WEAA's actual operating expenses and WEAA's expenses as being reported by the University” to the CPB and the State. (Id. ¶ 73). Williams knew operating expenses were approximately $750, 000.00, but in 2014, 2015, and 2016, the University reported that WEAA had operating expenses of approximately $1, 750, 000.00 to $1, 900, 000.00. (Id. ¶¶ 74-75). The net effect of this reporting was an increase in funding from the State, DoE, and CPB, among other sources. (Id. ¶ 77). When asked to endorse the operating expenses the University reported, Williams told Dean Wickham and other University officials that she believed the numbers were inconsistent with those reported to the University's financial team and were “intentionally inflated to pad the University's funding” in violation of federal law. (Id. ¶¶ 78-81). Williams refused to sign off on the 2016 financial statements and, in early 2017, told Dean Wickham and other University officials that she was “blowing the whistle” on the overstated operating costs, including to the CPB. (Id. ¶¶ 83- 88). On May 2, 2017, the University terminated Williams' employment, effective August 8, 2019. (Id. ¶ 92).

         On or about November 27, 2017, Williams filed a complaint under the Maryland Whistleblower Law, Md. Code Ann., State Pers. and Pens. [“SP&P”] § 5-309 with the State of Maryland's Office of Secretary of State (“Secretary of State”). (Defs.' Mot. Dismiss Altern. Summ J. [“Defs.' Mot.”] at 3; id. Ex. 1 [“Administrative Complaint”] at 10, ECF No. 5-2).[2]

         On April 26, 2018, Williams filed a Complaint in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, Maryland. (Not. Removal ¶ 1, ECF No. 1; Not. Removal Ex. 2 [“Compl.”], ECF No. 1-4). On November 30, 2018, Williams filed a First Amended Complaint. (Not. Removal Ex. 11 [“Not. Filing 1st Am. Compl.”] at 2, ECF No. 1-13). The First Amended Complaint alleges: wrongful termination in violation of Maryland public policy (Count I); defamation (Count II); and retaliation in violation of the National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”), 41 U.S.C. § 4712, et seq. (2018), and the ARRA, Pub. L. No. 111-5, § 1553, 123 Stat. 115 (2009) (Count III).[3] (1st Am. Compl. ¶¶ 103-38). Williams brings Counts I and III against both Defendants; Count II is only against Dean Wickham. (See id. at 11, 15, 16). Williams seeks injunctive relief and monetary, including punitive, damages. (Id. at 19).

         On January 2, 2019, Defendants removed the case to this Court. (ECF No. 1). On January 9, 2019, Defendants filed their Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 5). On February 11, Williams filed her Opposition. (ECF No. 11). On March 20, 2019, Defendants filed a Reply. (ECF No. 16).

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Conversion

         Defendants style their Motion as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for summary judgment under Rule 56. A motion styled in this manner implicates the Court's discretion under Rule 12(d). See Kensington Volunteer Fire Dep't, Inc. v. Montgomery Cty., 788 F.Supp.2d 431, 436-37 (D.Md. 2011), aff'd, 684 F.3d 462 (4th Cir. 2012). This Rule provides that when “matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the [Rule 12(b)(6)] motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). The Court “has ‘complete discretion to determine whether or not to accept the submission of any material beyond the pleadings that is offered in conjunction with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion and rely on it, thereby converting the motion, or to reject it or simply not consider it.'” Wells-Bey v. Kopp, No. ELH-12-2319, 2013 WL 1700927, at *5 (D.Md. Apr. 16, 2013) (quoting 5C Wright & Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1366, at 159 (3d ed. 2004, 2012 Supp.)).

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has articulated two requirements for proper conversion of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to a Rule 56 motion: notice and a reasonable opportunity for discovery. See Greater Balt. Ctr. for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. v. Mayor of Balt., 721 F.3d 264, 281 (4th Cir. 2013). When the movant expressly captions its motion “in the alternative” as one for summary judgment and submits matters outside the pleadings for the court's consideration, the parties are deemed to be on notice that conversion under Rule 12(d) may occur. See Moret v. Harvey, 381 F.Supp.2d 458, 464 (D.Md. 2005). The Court “does not have an obligation to notify parties of the obvious.” Laughlin v. Metro. Wash. Airports Auth., 149 F.3d 253, 261 (4th Cir. 1998).

         Ordinarily, summary judgment is inappropriate when “the parties have not had an opportunity for reasonable discovery.” E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 448 (4th Cir. 2011). Yet, “the party opposing summary judgment ‘cannot complain that summary judgment was granted without discovery unless that party had made an attempt to oppose the motion on the grounds that more time was needed for discovery.'” Harrods Ltd. v. Sixty Internet Domain Names, 302 F.3d 214, 244 (4th Cir. 2002) (quoting Evans v. Techs. Applications & Serv. Co., 80 F.3d 954, 961 (4th Cir. 1996)). To raise sufficiently the issue that more discovery is needed, the non-movant must typically file an affidavit or declaration under Rule 56(d), explaining the “specified reasons” why “it cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d). A Rule 56(d) affidavit is inadequate if it simply demands “discovery for the sake of discovery.” Hamilton v. Mayor of Balt., 807 F.Supp.2d 331, 342 (D.Md. 2011) (citation omitted). A Rule 56(d) request for discovery is properly denied when “the additional evidence sought for discovery would not have by itself created a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to defeat summary judgment.” Ingle ex rel. Estate of Ingle v. Yelton, 439 F.3d 191, 195 (4th Cir. 2006) (quoting Strag v. Bd. of Trs., Craven Cmty. Coll., 55 F.3d 943, 953 (4th Cir. 1995)).

         Here, Williams filed a 56(d) affidavit, requesting certain discovery. (Williams R. 56(d) Aff., ECF No. 11-3). The Court, therefore, will not convert the Motion to one for summary judgment.

         B. Stand ...


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