Vaughn v. Jacksonville State University et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART and DENYING IN PART and otherwise TERMING as MOOT 6 MOTION to Dismiss as set out herein. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 7/24/2015. (JLC)
2015 Jul-24 AM 10:54
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
) Case No.: 1:15-CV-835-VEH
UNIVERSITY, WILLIAM A.
MEEHAN, President, in his Official )
Capacity; JOE G. DELAP, Vice
Provost and Dean of Graduate
Studies, in his Official Capacity;
REBECCA O. TURNER, Provost, in )
her Official Capacity; and
TIMOTHY B. KING, Title IX
Coordinator, in his Official
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Rebecca Vaughn (“Ms. Vaughn”) initiated this Title IX and Equal
Protection/§ 1983 lawsuit against Defendants Jacksonville State University (“JSU”),
William A. Meehan, Joe G. Delap, Rebecca O. Turner, and Timothy B. King on May
20, 2015.1 (Doc. 1). Pending before the court is Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss (Doc.
6) (the “Motion”) filed on June 19, 2014, pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of
the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. On this same date, Defendants filed their
supporting brief. (Doc. 7).
Ms. Vaughn filed her opposition (Doc. 12) to the Motion on July 14, 2015. On
July 20, 2015, Defendants followed with their reply. (Doc. 13). Accordingly, the
Motion is now under submission, and, for the reasons explained below, is
GRANTED IN PART, DENIED IN PART, and otherwise TERMED as MOOT.
Rule 12(b)(1) Generally
Unlike state courts, federal tribunals are bodies of limited jurisdiction, meaning
that the grounds for the court’s jurisdiction over the claims asserted by the plaintiff
must be present at the time the complaint is filed and must be obvious on the face of
the complaint. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a); 28 U.S.C. § 1330, et seq. The law is clear that Ms.
Smith, the person seeking to invoke federal jurisdiction in this case, has the burden
to demonstrate that the court has subject matter jurisdiction. See McNutt v. General
Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S. 178, 189, 56 S. Ct. 780, 785, 80 L. Ed. 1135
As her case caption and party allegations indicate, Ms. Vaughn has sued all the individual
defendants in their official capacities only. (Doc. 7 at 1; id. at 3-4 ¶¶ 9-12).
(1936) (“They are conditions which must be met by the party who seeks the exercise
of jurisdiction in his favor . . . . [and a]s he is seeking relief subject to this
supervision, it follows that he must carry throughout the litigation the burden of
showing that he is properly in court.”).
Further, lack of subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived or expanded by
judicial interpretation, and a jurisdictional deficiency can be raised at any time by
either the parties or the court. See, e.g., Am. Fire & Cas. Co. v. Finn, 341 U.S. 6,
17-18, 71 S. Ct. 534, 542, 95 L. Ed. 702 (1951) (“The jurisdiction of the federal
courts is carefully guarded against expansion by judicial interpretation or by prior
action or consent of the parties.”); Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393, 398, 95 S. Ct. 553,
557, 42 L. Ed. 2d 532 (1975) (“While the parties may be permitted to waive
nonjurisdictional defects, they may not by stipulation invoke the judicial power of the
United States in litigation which does not present an actual ‘case or controversy,’ and
. . . we feel obliged to address the question of mootness before reaching the merits of
appellant’s claim.”) (citation omitted).
“‘[S]tanding is a threshold jurisdictional question which must be addressed
prior to and independent of the merits of a party’s claims.’” Bochese v. Town of Ponce
Inlet, 405 F.3d 964, 974 (11th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). “‘In essence the question
of standing is whether the litigant is entitled to have the court decide the merits of the
dispute or of particular issues.’” Bochese, 405 F.3d at 974 (quoting Midrash
Sephardi, Inc. v. Town of Surfside, 366 F.3d 1214, 1223 (11th Cir. 2004) (in turn
quoting Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498, 95 S. Ct. 2197, 45 L. Ed. 2d 343
(1975))). “Standing is a doctrine that ‘stems directly from Article III’s “case or
controversy” requirement,’ and thus it ‘implicates our subject matter jurisdiction.’”
Bochese, 405 F.3d at 974 (quoting Nat’l Parks Conservation Ass’n v. Norton, 324
F.3d 1229, 1242 (11th Cir. 2003) (in turn citing Vermont Agency of Natural Res. v.
United States ex rel. Stevens, 529 U.S. 765, 771, 120 S. Ct. 1858, 1861-62, 146 L. Ed.
2d 836 (2000))). “In fact, standing is ‘perhaps the most important’ jurisdictional
doctrine, and, as with any jurisdictional requisite, [the court is] powerless to hear a
case when it is lacking.” Bochese, 405 F.3d at 974 (quoting Bischoff v. Osceola
County, 222 F.3d 874, 877-78 (11th Cir. 2000) (in turn quoting United States v. Hays,
515 U.S. 737, 742, 115 S. Ct. 2431, 2435, 132 L. Ed. 2d 635 (1995))).
As the Eleventh Circuit has explained the doctrine of mootness:
It is well settled that at the time a plaintiff brings suit he must
have standing to prosecute his claim; he must have a “personal stake” in
the outcome of the litigation. See, e.g., City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461
U.S. 95, 101, 103 S. Ct. 1660, 1665, 75 L. Ed. 2d 675 (1983); United
States Parole Comm’n v. Geraghty, 445 U.S. 388, 396-97, 100 S. Ct.
1202, 1208-09, 63 L. Ed. 2d 479 (1980). The mootness doctrine requires
that the plaintiff's controversy remain live throughout the litigation; once
the controversy ceases to exist, the court must dismiss the cause for want
of jurisdiction. See, e.g., Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227,
239-40, 57 S. Ct. 461, 463–64, 81 L. Ed. 617 (1937); Church of
Scientology Flag Serv. Org. v. City of Clearwater, 777 F.2d 598, 604
(11th Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 476 U.S. 1116, 106 S. Ct. 1973, 90 L. Ed.
2d 656 (1986). . . . If the plaintiff’s claim is not live, the court lacks a
justiciable controversy and must dismiss the claim as moot. See
Geraghty, 445 U.S. at 404 & n.11, 100 S. Ct. at 1213 & n.11.
Tucker v. Phyfer, 819 F.2d 1030, 1033 (11th Cir. 1987); see also Castorela v. Mellon,
754 F. Supp. 191, 192 (M.D. Fla. 1990) (“The mootness doctrine requires that a live
controversy must exist at the case beginning of the litigation and must remain alive
throughout the litigation.”).
A Rule 12(b)(6) motion attacks the legal sufficiency of the complaint. See Fed.
R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) (“[A] party may assert the following defenses by motion: (6)
failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted[.]”). The Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure require only that the complaint provide “‘a short and plain statement
of the claim’ that will give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff’s claim is
and the grounds upon which it rests.” Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S. Ct. 99,
103, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80 (1957) (footnote omitted) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)),
abrogated by Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556, 127 S. Ct. 1955,
1965, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a) (setting forth general
pleading requirements for a complaint including providing “a short and plain
statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief”).
While a plaintiff must provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief, Rule 8
does not mandate the inclusion of “detailed factual allegations” within a complaint.
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S. Ct. at 1964 (quoting Conley, 355 U.S. at 47, 78 S.
Ct. at 103). However, at the same time, “it demands more than an unadorned,
the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662,
678, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009). “[O]nce a claim has been
stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any set of facts consistent with the
allegations in the complaint.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 563, 127 S. Ct. at 1969.
“[A] court considering a motion to dismiss can choose to begin by identifying
pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the
assumption of truth.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, 129 S. Ct. at 1950. “While legal
conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by
factual allegations.” Id. “When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court
should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to
an entitlement to relief.” Id. (emphasis added). “Under Twombly’s construction of
Rule 8 . . . [a plaintiff’s] complaint [must] ‘nudge [any] claims’ . . . ‘across the line
from conceivable to plausible.’ Ibid.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 680, 129 S. Ct. at 1950-51.
A claim is plausible on its face “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that
allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the
misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S. Ct. at 1949. “The plausibility
standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,’ but it asks for more than a sheer
possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at
556, 127 S. Ct. at 1965).
Ms. Vaughn’s Allegations and Claims
Ms. Vaughn’s lawsuit challenges Defendants’ efforts to remove her from JSU’s
Master of Science Program (the “Program”). Ms. Vaughn first enrolled in the
Program during the Fall 2008 semester. (Doc. 1 at 6 ¶ 22). After withdrawing because
of a pregnancy, she returned to the Program in May 2010. (Id. ¶ 23). On October 13,
2012, JSU notified her of its intent to remove her from the Program. Id.
Ms. Vaughn objected to this action and, at an appeal hearing held on November
27, 2012, she presented to JSU’s Admissions Committee (the “Committee”) the
reasons justifying her continued enrollment in the Program. (Doc. 1 at 7 ¶ 26). In a
letter dated December 4, 2012, the Committee informed Ms. Vaughn that it had
rescinded the decision to remove her from the Program subject to a list of certain
conditions that she would be required to fulfill. (Doc. 1 at 7 ¶ 26).
On July 15, 2013, Ms. Vaughn filed a complaint with Defendant Timothy King,
JSU’s Title IX Coordinator. (Doc. 1 at 7 ¶ 27). During the time period of the Title IX
Coordinator’s investigation, Ms. Vaughn ultimately completed the Program,
obtaining her M.S. degree from JSU on August 2, 2013. (Doc. 1 at 8 ¶ 28); (see also
Doc. 12 at 5 (acknowledging that Ms. Vaughn “is no longer a student at JSU”)).
In the first count of her complaint, Ms. Vaughn maintains that her dismissal
from the Program was improperly based upon sex in violation of Title IX. (Doc. 1 at
15-16 ¶¶ 60-64). Section 901 of Title IX provides in part that:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded
from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to
discrimination under any education program or activity receiving
Federal financial assistance ....
20 U.S.C. § 1681(a). Ms. Vaughn also asserts that Defendants violated Title IX by
retaliating against her after she complained about her alleged mistreatment under the
Program. (Doc. 1 at 15-16 ¶¶ 60-64).
In addition to her Title IX claims, Ms. Vaughn brings a § 1983 count for Equal
Protection violations against all the individual defendants. (Doc. 1 at 16-17 ¶¶ 65-68).
At the end of her complaint, she collectively seeks equitable relief as well as
compensatory damages for both her Title IX and § 1983 counts. (Doc. 1 at 17-18 ¶¶
Defendants have raised numerous grounds in support of their Motion. The
court addresses the viability of Ms. Vaughn’s § 1983 count first.
Sovereign Immunity and Mootness Require a Dismissal of Ms.
Vaughn’s § 1983 Count.
Sovereign or Eleventh Amendment immunity bars suits brought by private
plaintiffs “seeking to impose a liability which must be paid from public funds in the
state treasury.” Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 663, 94 S. Ct. 1347, 1355, 39 L.
Ed. 2d 662 (1974). Concerning equitable orders, while “the Eleventh Amendment
does not generally prohibit suits against state officials in federal court seeking only
prospective injunctive or declaratory relief, [it does] bar suits seeking retrospective
relief such as restitution or damages.” Florida Ass’n of Rehabilitation Facilities, Inc.
v. Fla. Dept. of Health and Rehabilitative Servs., 225 F.3d 1208, 1219 (11th Cir.
2000); see also id. (“Under the doctrine of Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 28 S. Ct.
441, 52 L. Ed. 714 (1908), there is a long and well-recognized exception to this rule
for suits against state officers seeking prospective equitable relief to end continuing
violations of federal law.”).
Ms. Vaughn does not dispute and, the court agrees with Defendants, that JSU
constitutes a state agency for sovereign immunity purposes and further that the
individual defendants, who have been sued in their official capacities, are similarly
entitled to sovereign immunity “because a claim against a state official . . . is
functionally equivalent to a claim against the state agency.” (Doc. 7 at 5); see, e.g.,
Harden v. Adams, 760 F.2d 1158, 1164-65 (11th Cir. 1985) (upholding district
court’s summary judgment decision in favor of Troy State University and individual
defendants sued in their official capacities on sovereign immunity grounds). Pursuant
to this shield of sovereign immunity, Ms. Vaughn’s efforts to obtain monetary
damages premised upon any Equal Protection violations are undoubtedly barred by
the Eleventh Amendment and are HEREBY DISMISSED WITHOUT
PREJUDICE. See Bennett v. United States, 102 F.3d 486, 488 n.1 (noting that
questions regarding sovereign immunity are analyzed under Rule 12(b)(1) unless “the
existence of subject matter jurisdiction is inextricably intertwined with material facts
affecting the merits of the claim” in which the Rule 56 standard may be more
While seeking prospective injunctive relief under § 1983 against state actors
to comply with federal law is a notable exception to the sovereign immunity doctrine,
that type of relief is jurisdictionally unavailable here because of Ms. Vaughn’s nonstudent status. In particular, this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this part
of Ms. Vaughn’s lawsuit because of mootness. The court’s mootness determination
is driven by the Eleventh Circuit’s binding decision in Adler v. Duval County School
Bd., 112 F.3d 1475 (11th Cir. 1997).2 Adler similarly dealt with claims asserted by
former students who had since graduated from the defendant county school system.
112 F.3d at 1477.
As the Adler panel explained:
We begin by noting that appellants’ claims for declaratory and
injunctive relief are moot. All appellants have graduated, and none are
threatened with harm from possible prayers in future Duval County
graduation ceremonies. In short, the appellants have no legally
cognizable need for relief declaring the policy unconstitutional and
preventing the School Board from allowing prayers at future
graduations. . . .
To apply the doctrine of mootness to this case, we must
distinguish the appellants’ claims for equitable relief from their claim
for money damages. Although neither the appellants nor the district
court treated the appellants' claim for damages as distinct from their
claims for equitable relief, these claims are distinct by nature. Equitable
relief is a prospective remedy, intended to prevent future injuries. In
contrast, a claim for money damages looks back in time and is intended
to redress a past injury.
Frequently, a plaintiff will seek both forms of relief in the same
cause of action when challenging a defendant’s course of conduct that
began before the initiation of the lawsuit and is likely to continue in the
future. The plaintiff requests money damages to redress injuries caused
by the defendant’s past conduct and seeks equitable relief to prevent the
defendant's future conduct from causing future injury.
Additionally, as Defendants point out, Ms. Vaughn “offers no rebuttal and therefore
concedes that [certain of] her claims are moot.” (Doc. 13 at 3).
When the threat of future harm dissipates, the plaintiff’s claims
for equitable relief become moot because the plaintiff no longer needs
protection from future injury. This is precisely what happened in this
Adler, 112 F.3d at 1477-78 (emphasis added).
Thus, akin to Adler, because Ms. Vaughn “no longer needs protection from
future injury” as a student at JSU, her efforts to obtain Fourteenth Amendment-based
and forward-looking equitable relief under § 1983 have become moot.3 Consequently,
that remaining portion of her § 1983 count is also DISMISSED WITHOUT
The Equitable Relief Portion of Ms. Vaughn’s Title IX Count
Is Due To Be Dismissed.
Mootness, as analyzed in Adler, similarly requires a dismissal of Ms. Vaughn’s
equitable relief premised upon Title IX as she no longer attends JSU. Consequently,
that part of her Title IX count is likewise DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.
However, as Adler clarifies, mootness does not preclude Ms. Vaughn from
seeking compensatory damages for any viable Title IX claim that she has. See Adler,
112 F.3d at 1478 (“Because the appellants’ claim for money damages does not
depend on any threat of future harm, this claim remains a live controversy.” (citing
To the extent that Ms. Vaughn has suggested in her opposition brief that injunctive relief
in the form of a correction of her educational record at JSU is still viable (Doc. 12 at 5-6), her
complaint does not include this as an item of injunctive relief being sought.
Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363, 371, 102 S. Ct. 1114, 1120, 71 L. Ed.
2d 214 (1982))).
Neither do the doctrines of sovereign immunity, see Williams v. Bd. of Regents
to Univ. of Ga., 477 F.3d 1282, 1301 (11th Cir. 2007) (“Williams correctly notes that
Congress validly abrogated the states’ immunity from Title IX suits.” (citing Gebser
v. Lago Vista Independent School Dist., 524 U.S. 274, 284, 118 S. Ct. 1989, 1996,
141 L. Ed. 2d 277 (1998))), and standing preclude Ms. Vaughn from seeking a
monetary award for her “psychological [harm] and emotional distress” (Doc. 1 at 17
¶ B) caused by a Title IX violation.
Additionally, Sheely v. MRI Radiology Network, P.A., 505 F.3d 1173 (11th Cir.
2007), confirms that compensatory damages are recoverable under Title IX. See
Sheely, 505 F.3d at 1195 (“On review, however, all nine Justices of the Supreme
Court agreed that “a damages remedy” is indeed available under Title IX, and
reversed.” (citing Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 503 U.S. 60, 76, 112
S. Ct. 1028, 1038, 117 L. Ed. 2d 208 (1992))); cf. also Sheely, 505 F.3d at 1204
(holding that “emotional damages are available to make whole the victims of
violations of § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act” [and by analogy to victims of Title IX
violations too] because “[w]hen an entity accepts funding from the federal
government,” it agrees not to discriminate and “[a] foreseeable consequence of
discrimination is emotional distress to the victim”). Therefore, because Ms. Vaughn
is seeking a compensatory damages award in addition to equitable relief, the Motion
is DENIED to the extent it seeks a complete dismissal of Ms. Vaughn’s Title IX
The Court Will Require Ms. Vaughn To Replead Her
Here, Defendants are correct that Ms. Vaughn’s complaint fails to satisfy the
pleading requirements of Twombly and Iqbal. However, rather than an outright
dismissal of her case, the court concludes that the more appropriate relief in this
instance is to give Ms. Vaughn the opportunity to replead. However, this repleader
is limited to her Title IX claims that are plausible under federal law.
In repleading, Ms. Vaughn must draft a much more definite and
comprehendible pleading that is consistent with all of the above rulings that have
dismissed various portions of her complaint on jurisdictional grounds. To the extent
that she has facts to support a plausible Title IX retaliation claim in addition to a
gender-based one, then she should allege each Title IX cause of action in a separately
numbered count. Additionally, Ms. Vaughn should not include any individuals as
defendants in any repleaded Title IX count, as “[i]ndividual school officials . . . may
not be held liable under Title IX.” Hartley v. Parnell, 193 F.3d 1263, 1270 (11th Cir.
1999) (citing Floyd v. Waiters, 133 F.3d 786, 789 (11th Cir.) (“[A] Title IX claim can
only be brought against a grant recipient—that is, a local school district—and not an
individual.”) (citations and quotations omitted), vacated, 525 U.S. 802, 119 S. Ct. 33,
142 L. Ed. 2d 25 (1998), reinstated, 171 F.3d 1264 (11th Cir. 1999)).
Further, in her replacement pleading, Ms. Vaughn must break down each one
of her claims into its requisite elements and connect those elements to those facts
which she in good faith alleges took place and which plausibly support why
Defendant JSU is potentially liable to her under that specific claim. If Ms. Vaughn
lacks facts to plausibly support every required element of a claim, then she must omit
that claim from her replacement pleading.
The deadline for Ms. Vaughn to replead her amended complaint is on or
before August 14, 2015.4 The court cautions Ms. Vaughn that the failure to
replead her complaint in an acceptable manner that comports with the Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure as required by this order may result in a dismissal of
her entire case with prejudice for the failure to prosecute.
Accordingly, for the reasons explained above, the Motion GRANTED IN
The deadline to answer or otherwise respond to such amended complaint shall be twenty
(20) days after such amended complaint is received.
PART, DENIED IN PART, and otherwise TERMED as MOOT.
DONE and ORDERED this 24th day of July, 2015.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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