Alame et al v. Mattews et al
OPINION AND ORDER Granting Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Count One of the Amended Complaint (Dkt. 11 ). Signed by District Judge Mark A. Goldsmith. (Sandusky, K)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
NOUHAD ALAME, et al.,
Case No. 16-cv-12329
HON. MARK A. GOLDSMITH
DE’ANDREA MATTHEWS, et al.,
OPINION AND ORDER
GRANTING DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO DISMISS COUNT ONE OF THE
AMENDED COMPLAINT (Dkt. 11)
In this civil rights case, brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants
violated their constitutional rights to procedural due process and equal protection when Plaintiffs
were dismissed from a post-baccalaureate program offered through the Wayne State University
School of Medicine. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss count one of the amended
complaint, which concerns Plaintiffs’ procedural due process claim only (Dkt. 11). The issues
have been fully briefed. Because oral argument will not aid the decisional process, the motion
will be decided based on the parties’ briefing. See E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(f)(2). As discussed below,
the Court grants the motion.
Plaintiffs Nouhad Alame and Michael VanHall were students enrolled in a non-degree
granting post-baccalaureate program at the Wayne State University School of Medicine during
the 2015-2016 academic year. Am. Compl. ¶ 1 (Dkt. 9). This program is intended for firstgeneration college graduates who are interested in admission to the medical school. Id. ¶ 9;
Defs. Br. at 2. Upon the successful completion of the one-year program, the students matriculate
directly into the medical school the following academic year. Am. Compl. ¶ 15. Students
participating in this program are required to sign a post-baccalaureate program agreement, which
informs the students that, if they receive a grade of “D” or lower in any academic course, they
will be dismissed from the program. Id. ¶¶ 22, 24. Both Alame and VanHall signed this
agreement. Id. ¶ 25.
During the winter 2016 term, Plaintiffs took a course entitled Gross Anatomy. Id. ¶ 28.
Alame and VanHall received a 68.9% and 69.95% in the course, respectively.
Id. ¶ 31.
According to Plaintiffs, these percentage grades equated to “C” grades based on the instructor’s
syllabus. Id. ¶¶ 30, 31. On March 3, 2016, Defendant De’Andrea Matthews, the director of the
program, met with Plaintiffs and informed them that, notwithstanding the instructor’s syllabus,
they had received “D” grades in the course and were being dismissed from the program. Id. ¶¶ 2,
32. Plaintiffs thereafter sought to appeal their dismissals. Id. ¶ 35.
Plaintiffs first spoke with the course instructor, who indicated that he was not aware that
a grade below 70% was considered a “D” grade by Wayne State, and believed that Plaintiffs
should not have received a “D” in his course. Id. ¶ 36. Plaintiffs then sought to follow Wayne
State’s policies for appealing a grade, but claim that they encountered repeated obstacles along
the way, which failed to give them “any meaningful opportunity to be heard.” Id. ¶ 37. For
instance, Plaintiffs attempted to contact Defendant Herbert Smitherman, the medical school’s
interim vice dean of diversity and inclusion, and Defendant Richard Baker, the vice dean for
medical education, but did not receive a response from either. Id. ¶¶ 3, 4, 38. Rather, the matter
was referred back to Matthews. Id. ¶ 38.
Plaintiffs claim that Matthews then held a “secret meeting” with other school
administrators to discuss Plaintiffs’ grades, of which the Plaintiffs had no knowledge. Id. ¶¶ 39,
42. After the meeting, Matthews informed Plaintiffs that the matter had been reviewed and that
“it was decided that their grades in Gross Anatomy [were] indicative of poor academic
performance, irrespective of the letter grade assigned,” and that this constituted “just cause for
dismissal from the Program.” Id. ¶ 43.
Plaintiffs appealed this decision to Defendant Joseph Rankin, associate provost at Wayne
State. Id. ¶¶ 5, 44. Rankin responded in a letter dated April 18, 2016, in which he stated that he
was upholding Plaintiffs’ dismissals from the program and noted that a grade between 60% and
69% is considered a “D” grade under Wayne State’s “universal” grading scale. Id. ¶¶ 45-47.1
Plaintiffs initiated this action on June 23, 2016, claiming that Defendants conduct
violated their constitutional right to procedural due process.
See generally id. ¶¶ 58-66.
Plaintiffs also claim that Defendants treated them less favorably than similarly situated AfricanAmerican students in the program based on Plaintiffs’ race, which violated Plaintiffs’ right to
equal protection. See generally id. ¶¶ 67-73. Plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages and either
admission to the medical school or reinstatement in the post-baccalaureate program. Id. at 15,
¶¶ A-B (prayer for relief).
II. STANDARD OF DECISION
In evaluating a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6),
“[c]ourts must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to plaintiff, accept all well-pled
factual allegations as true, and determine whether the complaint states a plausible claim for
relief.” Albrecht v. Treon, 617 F.3d 890, 893 (6th Cir. 2010). To survive a motion to dismiss,
a complaint must plead specific factual allegations, and not just legal conclusions, in support of
Plaintiffs also claim that Defendant Kevin Sprague, the associate dean of admissions at the
medical school, “was involved in the decision to dismiss Plaintiffs from the Program.” Am.
Compl. ¶ 6. However, the amended complaint never indicates how Sprague was personally
involved or participated in the dismissals. Defendants do not challenge this particular pleading
each claim. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-679 (2009). A complaint will be dismissed
unless it states a “plausible claim for relief.” Id. at 679.
To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate that a person acting
under the color of state law deprived the plaintiff of a federal statutory or constitutional right.
West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). However, the doctrine of qualified immunity shields a
government official from civil liability, unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional
right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct. Taylor v. Barkes, 135 S.
Ct. 2042, 2044 (2015) (per curiam); accord Reichle v. Howards, 132 S. Ct. 2088, 2093 (2012).
“A clearly established right is one that is sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would
have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S. Ct. 305, 308
(2015) (per curiam); see also City & Cnty. of San Francisco, Cal. v. Sheehan, 135 S. Ct. 1765,
1774 (2015) (“An officer cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the
right’s contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in his shoes would have
understood that he was violating it.”).
Although a case directly on point is not required for a constitutional right to be clearly
established, the plaintiff must show “either controlling authority or a robust consensus of cases
of persuasive authority . . . that could be said to have clearly established the unconstitutionality”
of the official’s conduct. Plumhoff v. Rickard, 134 S. Ct. 2012, 2023-2024 (2014); Ashcroft v.
al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011) (“[E]xisting precedent must have placed the . . . constitutional
question beyond debate.”); see also Durham v. Nu’Man, 97 F.3d 862, 866 (6th Cir. 1996) (“A
right is not considered clearly established unless it has been authoritatively decided by the United
States Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, or the highest court of the state in which the alleged
constitutional violation occurred.”).
Practically speaking, this prong of qualified immunity
provides “government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments
about open legal questions” and protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who
knowingly violate the law.” al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 743.
The Supreme Court has also repeatedly admonished courts “not to define clearly
established law at a high level of generality.” Id. at 742. Rather, a court’s inquiry into whether a
constitutional right is clearly established “must be undertaken in light of the specific context of
the case, not as a broad general proposition.” Mullenix, 136 S. Ct. at 308. In other words, the
“dispositive question is whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established.”
Id. (emphasis in original).
In this case, Plaintiffs claim that they have a “constitutionally protected fundamental right
and property interest in continuing their education,” Am. Compl. ¶ 59, which was violated when
they were dismissed from the program. Defendants, however, contend that they are entitled to
qualified immunity because this purported constitutional right is not clearly established. See
generally Defs. Br. at 7-9.2 The Court agrees with Defendants.
Plaintiffs have failed to provide any controlling authority from the Supreme Court, the
Sixth Circuit, or the Michigan Supreme Court that clearly establishes a right to continued
enrollment in a post-baccalaureate program. Nor have Plaintiffs provided “a robust consensus of
cases of persuasive authority in the Courts of Appeals” that “could itself clearly establish the
Defendants also argue that their conduct did not violate Plaintiffs’ procedural due process
rights, assuming such a right was clearly established. See generally Defs. Br. at 9-12. Because
the constitutional right at issue in this case was not clearly established, see infra, the Court
refrains from addressing this additional argument. Reichle, 132 S. Ct. at 2093 (holding “that
courts may grant qualified immunity on the ground that a purported right was not ‘clearly
established’ by prior case law, without resolving the often more difficult question whether the
purported right exists at all”); accord Sheehan, 135 S. Ct. at 1778 (when “the qualified immunity
analysis is straightforward,” a court does not have to decide whether the defendant’s alleged
conduct violated the Constitution).
federal right.” Taylor, 135 S. Ct. at 2044; see also Plumhoff, 134 S. Ct. at 2023-2024. Because
there is no existing precedent that has placed the purported constitutional right to continued
enrollment in a post-baccalaureate program beyond debate, Defendants are entitled to qualified
immunity on count one of the amended complaint. See Varlesi v. Wayne State Univ., 909 F.
Supp. 2d 827, 861 (E.D. Mich. 2012) (holding that the constitutional right to continued
enrollment at Wayne State University was not “clearly established” as of April 2008); see also
Vigil v. Regents of Univ. of Mich., 980 F. Supp. 2d 790, 803 (E.D. Mich. 2013) (illustrating
disagreement among Sixth Circuit panels on whether a plaintiff possesses a property right in his
or her continued enrollment at a post-secondary institution).
In their response brief, Plaintiffs argue that Bell v. Ohio State University, 351 F.3d 240
(6th Cir. 2003), in which Plaintiffs acknowledge the Sixth Circuit “assumed without deciding
that such a right exists,” is “the only opinion binding on this court to address the [clearly
established] question,” Pls. Resp. at 12 (Dkt. 15) (emphasis added). But as Plaintiffs’ brief itself
recognizes, the Bell court only assumed that such a constitutional right existed for purposes of its
analysis, and concluded that the right was not violated. See Bell, 351 F.3d at 249 (“Assuming,
however, for the purposes of this summary judgment motion, that Ms. Bell does have such an
interest [in her continued education at the medical school], we hold that Ms. Bell has not
presented any evidence that the defendants denied her procedural due process in reviewing her
failure to comply with the conditions of her reinstatement or in dismissing her because of that
failure.”). This is a practice the Sixth Circuit has noted is quite common among courts. E.g.
McGee v. Schoolcraft Cmty. Coll., 167 F. App’x 429, 437 (6th Cir. 2006) (“Courts have avoided
[the issue of whether a student's interest in continued enrollment at a postsecondary institution is
protected by procedural due process] where possible by assuming for the sake of argument that
such an interest exists.”). The Sixth Circuit’s assumption in Bell is far from a definitive answer
to the question of whether the right to continued enrollment in a post-baccalaureate program is
clearly established such that the issue is beyond debate.
Accordingly, the Court grants the motion.
For the reasons stated above, the Court grants Defendants’ motion to dismiss count one
of the amended complaint (Dkt. 11).
Dated: December 21, 2016
s/Mark A. Goldsmith
MARK A. GOLDSMITH
United States District Judge
CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE
The undersigned certifies that the foregoing document was served upon counsel of record and
any unrepresented parties via the Court's ECF System to their respective email or First Class
U.S. mail addresses disclosed on the Notice of Electronic Filing on December 21, 2016.
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