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Salcido v. University of Southern Mississippi

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

May 29, 2013

MARIA SALCIDO, Plaintiff,
v.
THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

KEITH STARRETT, District Judge.

For the reasons stated below, the Court grants Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [9] as to Plaintiff's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court declines to presently address Plaintiff's remaining state-law breach of contract claim and orders the parties to show cause why the Court should exercise pendent jurisdiction over it, rather than remand it to the Circuit Court of Forrest County, Mississippi.

I. BACKGROUND

This is a Section 1983 case involving alleged discrimination on the basis of race and national origin in a graduate program at a public university. Plaintiff - a foreign-born Latina - was a graduate student in the marriage and family therapy ("MFT") program at the University of Southern Mississippi. To obtain a master's degree, students in the program must complete a certain number of clinical hours during which they provide therapy to clients at the University Clinic or through an externship. Plaintiff claims that she was assigned fewer clients at the University Clinic than her American-born, Caucasian peers. She also claims that she was denied opportunities to participate in externships which were open to her American-born, Caucasian peers. She complained to multiple administrators, and she alleges that they failed to remedy the situation, that they failed to follow the University's grievance procedures, and that they retaliated against her because of her complaints.

Plaintiff brought this suit against the University and several individuals in their official and individual capacities. Defendant Saunders was the President of the University during these events. Defendant West was the chairperson of the Department of Child and Family Studies, which includes the MFT program. Defendant Woodrick was the Director of the Office of Affirmative Action/Equal Employment Opportunity ("AA/EEO"). Plaintiff asserted various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. She claims that Defendants deprived her of rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause, and Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. She also asserted a state-law claim for breach of contract.

Early in the proceedings, Defendants filed both a Motion to Dismiss [7] and a Motion for Summary Judgment [9]. The Court eventually allowed Plaintiff to conduct discovery on all issues presented in Defendants' dispositive motions, and to amend her complaint.[1] As noted in the Court's previous order [83], the Amended Complaint [51] rendered Defendants' Motion to Dismiss [7] moot. But the Court decided to consider Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [9] after allowing Plaintiff an opportunity to file a sur-reply addressing the post-discovery arguments and evidence presented in Defendants' reply. The Motion for Summary Judgment [9] is now ripe.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Rule 56 provides that "[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a); see also Sierra Club, Inc. v. Sandy Creek Energy Assocs., L.P., 627 F.3d 134, 138 (5th Cir. 2010). "Where the burden of production at trial ultimately rests on the nonmovant, the movant must merely demonstrate an absence of evidentiary support in the record for the nonmovant's case." Cuadra v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 626 F.3d 808, 812 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). The nonmovant "must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. (punctuation omitted). "An issue is material if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action." Sierra Club, Inc., 627 F.3d at 138. "An issue is genuine' if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Cuadra, 626 F.3d at 812.

The Court is not permitted to make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Deville v. Marcantel, 567 F.3d 156, 164 (5th Cir. 2009). When deciding whether a genuine fact issue exists, "the court must view the facts and the inference to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Sierra Club, Inc., 627 F.3d at 138. However, "[c]onclusional allegations and denials, speculation, improbable inferences, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic argumentation do not adequately substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." Oliver v. Scott, 276 F.3d 736, 744 (5th Cir. 2002).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Section 1983 Claims Against the University

First, Defendants argue that 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides no cause of action against the University because it is not a "person" within the meaning of the statute. Defendants are correct. "[S]tates and their political subdivisions are not persons' within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983." Cheramie v. Tucker, 493 F.2d 586, 587 (5th Cir. 1974); see also Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 64, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 105 L.Ed.2d 45 (1989). The University is an arm of the state of Mississippi, and, therefore, it is not a "person" within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Stotter v. Univ. of Tex., 508 F.3d 812, 821 (5th Cir. 2007); Chestang v. Alcorn State Univ., 820 F.Supp.2d 772, 779 (S.D.Miss. 2011); Senu-Oke v. Jackson State Univ., 521 F.Supp.2d 551, 555-56 (S.D.Miss. 2007). For that reason, the Court grants Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims against the University.

B. Section 1983 Official Capacity Claims

Defendants argue that Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims against the individual Defendants in their official capacities should be dismissed for the same reason as Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims against the University. Defendants are correct. "[A]n official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity. It is not a suit against the official personally, for the real party in interest is the entity." Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 87 L.Ed.2d 114 (1985). Accordingly, the Court grants Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment with respect to Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims against the individual Defendants - Martha Saunders, Rebecca Woodrick, and Charles West - in their official capacities.

C. Section 1983 Individual Capacity Claims

To make out a Section 1983 claim against a public official in their individual capacity, a plaintiff must show "that the defendant was either personally involved in the deprivation or that his wrongful actions were causally connected to the deprivation." Jones v. Lowndes County, Miss., 678 F.3d 344, 349 (5th Cir. 2012). Supervisory officials may be held liable under Section 1983 only if they affirmatively participate in the acts causing the constitutional violation, or implement unconstitutional practices that result in constitutional injury. Wernecke v. Garcia, 591 F.3d 386, 401 (5th Cir. 2009). "[L]iability under the doctrine of respondeat superior is not cognizable in § 1983 actions." Cozzo v. Tangipahoa Prish Council-President Gov't, 279 F.3d 273, 286 (5th Cir. 2002).

1. Procedural Due Process

"Procedural due process imposes constraints on governmental decisions which deprive individuals of liberty' or property' interests...." Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 332, 96 S.Ct. 893, 47 L.Ed.2d 18 (1976). "[F]or a person to have a procedural due process claim that damages or other relief can remedy, he must have been denied life, liberty, or property protected by the Fourteenth Amendment." Wilson v. Birnberg, 667 F.3d 591, 597 (5th Cir. 2012). Property or liberty interests may be "created and defined by existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law, " Id. at 598, including the policies and procedures of public universities. Bd. of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 578, 92 S.Ct. 2701, 33 L.Ed.2d 548 (1972). If a due process entitlement exists, the party enjoying the entitlement is entitled to "notice and an opportunity to be heard... at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner." Gibson v. Tex. Dep't of Ins. - Div. of Workers' Comp., 700 F.3d 227, 239 (5th Cir. 2012).

a. Clinical Assignments

Defendants argue, among other things, that Plaintiff was not deprived of a life, liberty, or property interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiff contends that she had a property interest in the clinical hours and externships that Defendants allegedly denied. "To have a property interest, ... a person clearly must have more than an abstract need or desire for it. He must have more than a unilateral expectation of it. He must, instead, have a legitimate claim of entitlement to it." Dennis Melancon, Inc. v. City of New Orleans, 703 F.3d 262, 269-70 (5th Cir. 2012). "No discretion in the official and a reasonable expectation in the citizen are central elements of a protected property interest." Hampton Co. Nat'l Sur. LLC v. ...


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