Streeter v. Walden University, LLC et al
MEMORANDUM. Signed by Judge Catherine C. Blake on 12/5/2017. (c/m 12/6/17 bas, Deputy Clerk)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND
ERIC D. STREETER
WALDEN UNIVERSITY, LLC, et al.
Civil Action No. CCB-16-3460
The plaintiff, Eric D. Streeter, has sued the defendants, Walden University and Laureate
Education, claiming that their unjustified delay of his doctoral program, among other things,
gives rise to six legal claims: breach of contract; unjust enrichment; violation of the Maryland
Consumer Protection Act; violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment;
libel under Florida law; and violation of the False Claims Act. The defendants filed a motion to
dismiss, that, for the reasons found below, will be granted.
Streeter enrolled in Walden University’s Doctorate in Business Administration program
in the summer of 2010. (Compl. ¶¶ 50-51).1 Between the summer of 2012 and the fall of 2014,
Streeter was enrolled in a dissertation course meant to guide students through the dissertation
writing process. (Id. at ¶ 58). The dissertation process has five stages: (1) develop and write a
premise; (2) develop a prospectus; (3) write a proposal; (4) study or research the subject of the
dissertation; and (5) defend the dissertation. (Id. at ¶ 22). At each stage, a student needs faculty
approval before proceeding to the next step. (Id. at ¶ 23). For example, a student’s prospectus
Streeter’s complaint is substantially copied from the complaint filed in Travis, et al. v. Walden University, et al.,
2015 WL 6769101 (D. Md. Oct. 30, 2015).
must be approved “by both the dissertation supervisory committee chair and the committee
member” before the student may write a proposal. (Id. at ¶ 27).
In February 2012, Streeter submitted his prospectus to the supervisory committee for
approval. (Id. at ¶ 59). It was approved and his supervisory committee was created. (Id.). Over
the next two years, however, the composition of Streeter’s supervisory committee changed twice:
first, Dr. Lionel deSouza replaced a committee member; then, after Streeter requested a new
committee chair, the University appointed Dr. deSouza to the position of chair despite Streeter
suggesting one of three other faculty members for the position. (Id. at ¶¶ 60-61). Soon after,
Streeter learned that Dr. deSouza did not support aspects of his proposed doctoral study. (Id. at ¶
62). He was asked to start over. (Id.).
In response, Streeter petitioned the university for reimbursement of the money he spent
developing his original doctoral study. (Id. at ¶ 63). After his petition was denied, Streeter
requested a teleconference with the university’s ombudsman, the director of his program, and
anyone else the university thought necessary to the resolution of his grievances. (Id. at ¶ 64).
Streeter was again rebuffed. (Id.). Streeter now sues Walden and Laureate claiming they
unlawfully expanded the length and cost of his doctoral program. (ECF No. 1).2 Walden and
Laureate responded with a motion to dismiss the complaint. (ECF No. 19). For the following
reasons, the court will grant the motion.
Standard of Review
To survive a motion to dismiss, the factual allegations of a complaint “must be enough to
raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the
complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555
(2007) (internal citations omitted). “To satisfy this standard, a plaintiff need not ‘forecast’
Streeter has also filed a motion for leave to file a surreply. The court will grant the motion.
evidence sufficient to prove the elements of the claim. However, the complaint must allege
sufficient facts to establish those elements.” Walters v. McMahen, 684 F.3d 435, 439 (4th Cir.
2012) (citation omitted). “Thus, while a plaintiff does not need to demonstrate in a complaint
that the right to relief is ‘probable,’ the complaint must advance the plaintiff’s claim ‘across the
line from conceivable to plausible.’” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). And the plaintiff
typically must do so by relying solely on facts asserted within the four corners of his complaint.
Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics Intern., Ltd., 780 F.3d 597, 606-07 (4th Cir. 2015).
Streeter claims that Walden and Laureate,3 by extending the length of his doctoral
program: breached their contractual obligations; were unjustly enriched; violated the Maryland
Consumer Protection Act, MD. CODE COM. LAW, § 13-301 et seq.; violated the due process
clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; committed libel under Florida law; and violated the False
Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3729.
Breach of Contract
Streeter argues Walden and Laureate breached their contractual obligation to provide him
feedback on his dissertation proposal within fourteen days.
Under Maryland law, matriculation creates a contractual relationship between student and
university with terms which may be “contained in the brochures, course offering bulletins, and
other official statements, policies and publications of a university.” Harwood v. Johns Hopkins
University, 747 A.2d 205, 209 (Md. App. 2000) (internal quotations omitted). Although courts
will enforce these contracts under certain circumstances, especially when a student has
completed all of her degree requirements and denial of a degree would be “arbitrary and
The defendants assert that Streeter has improperly sued Laureate because it is only a parent company. The court
does not reach the merits of that question because Streeter’s claims will be dismissed.
capricious,” they should be “mindful of their lack of competence in assessing academic
judgments.” Onawola v. Johns Hopkins University, 412 F. Supp. 2d 529, 532 (D. Md. 2006).
Upon his matriculation there is no doubt some contract was formed between Streeter and
the defendants or that among the university’s “official statements, policies and publications”
there is a fourteen day response policy.4 But Streeter never identifies the particular circumstances
surrounding the defendants’ delayed response; the complaint fails even to mention which
fourteen day response period or periods Streeter believes the defendants violated.
At its core, Streeter’s complaint turns not on the defendants’ failure to respond within
fourteen days to an inquiry or to his proposal but on Dr. deSouza’s rejection of his dissertation
proposal about two years after Streeter first presented the idea in his initial prospectus. But this
decision is exactly the kind of academic decision courts are ill-equipped to second guess. See
Regents of the Univ. of Mich. v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214, 225 (1985) (“When judges are asked to
review the substance of a genuinely academic decision . . . they should show great respect for the
faculty’s professional judgment.”); see also Huang v. Bd. Of Governors of the Univ. of N.C., 902
F.2d 1134, 1142 (4th Cir. 1990). Streeter asks the court to sit in judgment on the sufficiency of
his dissertation proposal in Business Administration, but the court lacks the expertise and the
manageable standards by which to conclude Dr. deSouza was wrong to reject Streeter’s doctoral
To the extent Streeter argues Dr. deSouza’s decision violated the fourteen day policy, his
complaint is still insufficient. Streeter does not allege that Dr. deSouza failed to respond to his
proposal or an inquiry within fourteen days of assuming the role of committee chair. But even if
The defendants argue that they did not owe a contractual duty to respond within fourteen days because their
student handbook disclaims the existence of contracts with matriculated students. (Defs.’ Reply, ECF No. 22).
Because the court will dismiss Streeter’s complaint even if there were a contract, it does not reach this issue.
he had, university policy only states “[f]eedback should take no longer than [fourteen] calendar
days,” (ECF No. 21, Ex. 3) (emphasis added), an aspirational, rather than a guaranteed, response
time.5 Moreover, none of the documents attached to the plaintiff’s opposition to the motion to
dismiss impose procedural guidelines for if and when a replacement supervisory committee chair
may reject a PhD candidate’s dissertation proposal. In fact, the university expressly warns
students that prospectus approval “should not be construed as approval of the proposed project as
is” and it should be “expected that major refinement of the plan will be necessary.” (ECF No. 21,
Ex. 6). Dr. deSouza’s alterations, therefore, should not have surprised Streeter.
Finally, Streeter claims the defendants breached their contract by dismissing faculty
members on his supervisory committee. Even if Walden and Laureate had a contractual
obligation to retain faculty members, not one of the changes in Streeter’s doctoral supervisory
committee resulted from a faculty dismissal. Indeed, the change in the chair of his committee
was not instigated by the defendants at all but requested by Streeter. (Compl. ¶ 61).
Because the court is not prepared to make academic judgments, and because Streeter does
not provide factual allegations to support his legal assertions, his breach of contract claim will be
Next, Streeter argues Walden and Laureate were unjustly enriched because they failed to
provide feedback on his doctoral study prospectus within the fourteen day period stated in
Walden’s Doctoral Study Process Checklist and dismissed faculty members working on his
doctoral supervisory committee.
The court may consider a document “attached to a motion to dismiss . . . when the document is integral to and
explicitly relied on in the complaint.” Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics Intern., Ltd., 780 F.3d 597, 606-07 (4th Cir.
2015) (internal quotations omitted).
Under Maryland law, a successful unjust enrichment claim must establish that: “(1) the
plaintiff confer[red] a benefit upon the defendant; (2) the defendant kn[ew] or appreciate[d] the
benefit; and (3) the defendant's acceptance or retention of the benefit under the circumstances is
such that it would be inequitable to allow the defendant to retain the benefit without the paying
of value in return.” Benson v. State, 887 A.2d 525, 546 (Md. 2005). When considering academic
judgments, “courts will not generally interfere in the operations of colleges and universities.”
Onawola, 412 F. Supp. 2d at 532 (citing Harwood, 747 A.2d at 209).
The complaint does not show that Streeter did not receive value in return for his tuition
payments. Further, for all the reasons stated in section I, Streeter’s complaint does not support
the assertion that Walden and Laureate violated the fourteen day response policy or that it
dismissed faculty members working on his supervisory committee. This claim also will be
Maryland Consumer Protection Act
Streeter also claims Walden and Laureate violated § 13-303(3) of the Maryland
Consumer Protection Act, which protects consumers from unfair and deceptive trade practices in
“[t]he offer for sale of course credit or other educational services,” MD. CODE COM. LAW § 13303(3), when a university makes “false . . . or misleading oral or written statement[s],” or fails
“to state a material fact if the failure deceives or tends to deceive,” MD. CODE COM. LAW § 13301(1), (3). The plaintiff must show he relied on the false or misleading representation, and his
reliance resulted in injury. See Stewart v. Bierman, 859 F. Supp. 2d 754, 768-69 (D. Md. 2012).
And, Streeter must state with “some precision” the allegedly unlawful misrepresentations and
“active concealments” responsible for his injury. Johnson v. Wheeler, 492 F. Supp. 2d 492, 509
(D. Md. 2007).
Streeter argues that Walden and Laureate violated the MCPA by making false and
misleading statements about the length and cost of his program and knowingly failing to inform
consumers of widespread delays in its doctoral programs. Not one of these allegations, however,
is supported by factual claims in Streeter’s complaint. Lacking even a general description of the
circumstances constituting fraud, the complaint does not include allegations about who made the
allegedly fraudulent statement, what the statement represented, or even whether a statement was
ever made. Nor does it support the necessary allegation that Walden or Laureate knew or
intentionally misrepresented a fact. A complaint does not “suffice if it tenders naked assertions
devoid of further factual enhancement.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal
The complaint similarly lacks factual allegations to support a claim that Walden and
Laureate intentionally or knowingly concealed material facts. See Polek v. J.P. Morgan Chase
Bank, N.A., 36 A.3d 333, 364-65 (Md. 2012) (affirming dismissal of a case in which the plaintiff
failed to allege that the defendants “had any intention that [the plaintiff] would rely on any
knowing concealment, suppression, or omission of material facts.” (internal quotations omitted)).
Accordingly, the court will dismiss Streeter’s claim under the MCPA.
Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
Streeter claims the defendants violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth
Amendment by abridging its doctoral study guidelines and engaging in unfair practices. The Due
Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevents states from depriving “any person of life,
liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Const. amend., XIV, § 1. By its terms, the
Fourteenth Amendment only applies to state action. See U.S. v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598, 621
Streeter does not claim the defendants are state actors, nor could he, because they are
private institutions. Therefore, he cannot establish a claim under the Fourteenth Amendment and
his claim will be dismissed.
Streeter also claims Walden and Laureate sent him libelous messages concerning the
sufficiency of his doctoral proposal during the dispute over his dissertation proposal in violation
of a Florida criminal statute, Fla. Stat. § 836.01 et seq. Putting aside the question of Florida law’s
applicability in this case, to say nothing of Streeter’s standing to bring suit under a criminal
statute, Streeter’s libel claim fails because the messages were not published.
In Florida, defamation has five elements: “(1) publication; (2) falsity; (3) . . . knowledge
or reckless disregard as to the falsity on a matter concerning a public official, or at least
negligen[ce] on a matter concerning a private person; (4) actual damages; and (5) [the] statement
must be defamatory.” Jews For Jesus, Inc. v. Rapp, 997 So. 2d 1098, 1106 (Fla. 2008). A matter
is published if it is communicated “intentionally or by a negligent act to one other than the
person defamed.” Doe v. America Online, Inc., 783 So. 2d 1010, 1016 (Fla. 2001) (quoting the
Restatement (Second) of Tort § 577 (Am. Law Inst. 1977)).
Streeter never alleges in his complaint that the communications he received, defamatory
or not, were published. But even if he had, he also fails to allege that the defendants negligently
disregarded the falsity of their statements. Indeed, Dr. Campbell, the person who sent Streeter the
allegedly defamatory messages, based his statements concerning Streeter’s academic
performance on a careful investigation of Streeter’s complaints. (ECF No. 22, Ex. 1).
Accordingly, Streeter cannot succeed on his libel claim and this claim, too, will be dismissed.
False Claims Act
Last, Streeter claims Walden and Laureate violated the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. §
3729. The False Claims Act makes it unlawful to, among other things, “knowingly present, or
cause to be presented, a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval” to the United States
government. 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1)(A). Congress created a private right to sue under the Act if
the suit is “brought in the name of the Government . . . the complaint and written disclosure of
substantially all material evidence and information the person possesses [is] . . . served on the
Government . . . [and] [t]he complaint . . . [is] filed in camera . . . remain[s] under seal for at least
60 days, and [is] not . . . served on the defendant until the court so orders.” 31 U.S.C. §
Streeter did not follow these procedures. Accordingly, his False Claims Act claim will be
For the reasons stated above, the defendants’ motion to dismiss will be granted. And even
considering the additional information provided in his opposition, there is no indication Streeter
would be able to amend his complaint sufficiently to state a plausible claim. Accordingly, the
dismissal will be with prejudice and without leave to amend. A separate order follows.
____ December 5, 2017______
Catherine C. Blake
United States District Judge
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