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Seals v. State

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

February 20, 2014

EDWARD SEALS, JR., PLAINTIFF
v.
STATE OF MISSISSIPPI; BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF STATE OF MISSISSIPPI STATE INSTITUTIONS OF HIGHER LEARNING; UNIVERSITY OF MISSISSIPPI; DR. DANIEL JONES, M.D., et al., DEFENDANTS

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Edward Seals, Jr., Plaintiff: Derek D. Hopson, LEAD ATTORNEY, HOPSON LAW OFFICE, PLLC, Clarksdale, MS.

For State of Mississippi, Board of Trustees of State of Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, University of Mississippi, Dr. Daniel W. Jones, In His Official Capacity as Chancellor of The University of Mississippi, Dr. Mika Jekabsons, Individually, Dr. Carol Britson, Individually, Dr. Matthew Reysen, Individually, Dr. Richard Buchholz, Individually, Defendants: J. Cal Mayo, Jr., Mary A. Connell, LEAD ATTORNEYS, MAYO MALLETTE, PLLC, Oxford, MS.

OPINION

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MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Sharion Aycock, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

This cause comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [55], Defendants' Motions to Strike [59] and [63], and Plaintiff's Motions to Strike [61] and [66]. Because the Court determines that Plaintiff has failed to establish a genuine dispute of material fact with regard to his due process claims as to Jones and Plaintiff's claims against the individually named faculty members are barred by qualified immunity, the Court grants judgment in favor of Defendants as to those counts of the Complaint. Because the Court finds that Plaintiff's remaining

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constitutional claims fail on the basis of sovereign immunity or standing, those claims are dismissed without prejudice. Having dismissed Plaintiff's federal claims, the Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction of Plaintiff's remaining state-law claims and accordingly dismisses those claims without prejudice as well.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The instant suit stems from a disagreement between Plaintiff Edward Seals, Jr. and a number of faculty and staff members at the University of Mississippi (" the University" ) regarding grade assignments and allegations of academic misconduct levied at Seals during his tenure at the University. Specifically, Seals filed the present action contending that Defendants are liable under theories of due process infringement, breach of contract, and defamation. The following facts provide the backdrop for the dispute.[1]

In August 2009, Seals was admitted to the University's biology program as a transfer student, having already completed two years of course work at Coahoma Community College. At the time of Plaintiff's enrollment, he had been accepted for admission to the University of Mississippi Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College (" the Honors College" ) and the rural physicians scholarship program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. According to Plaintiff, the physicians scholarship program would have provided approximately $120,000 toward his medical education assuming he was eventually admitted to medical school and agreed to practice in a rural area of the state. Acceptance into both of the honors programs was largely contingent on Seals' academic history and required that he maintain a high level of academic success.

Although Seals successfully graduated from the University, earning a Bachelor's of Science degree in August 2011, he was unable to maintain the requisite grade point average required for either honors program and was subsequently dismissed from both. Additionally, Seals was implicated in an alleged incident of cheating and was also accused of plagiarizing materials on several separate occasions. Those allegations resulted in a faculty member charging him with academic dishonesty. Subsequently, and according to Plaintiff, consequentially, he has since failed to gain admission to medical school. Plaintiff now attempts to contest numerous final grades assigned to him during his tenure at the University. Dissatisfied with those grades, Plaintiff attempts to enlist this Court to independently review the propriety of four final grades assigned by various members of the University faculty.

In order to graduate from the University as an Honors Scholar, Seals was required to write an Honor's thesis under the supervision of a thesis advisor. Seals initially asked Defendant Mika Jekabsons to serve as his advisor, and Jekabsons agreed. Plaintiff thereafter enrolled in Biological Sciences I (BISC 491) under the

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direction of Jekabsons. BISC 491 was a directed study class designed to introduce Seals to certain research methods that would be essential in producing his thesis. Specifically, Seals was expected to gain familiarity producing polyacrylamide gels and running samples on them. Because Jekabsons' research assistant had significant experience running such experiments, Jekabsons placed Seals under the direct guidance of his own research assistant, Dennis Huckabee.

Plaintiff's work with Huckabee progressed for the majority of the semester without major incident. According to Seals, Huckabee informed him that he " was performing the experiments fine." In the eyes of Jekabsons, however, Seals " was relying too mach on [Huckabee] to perform tasks that [he] wanted him to learn." Accordingly, Jekabsons became " a little concerned that [Seals] wasn't picking up on the ability to perform the techniques independently." Jekabsons thereafter initiated contact with Seals to convey his expectations for the course.

Toward the end of the semester, Huckabee was unavailable to continue observing Seals and Jekabsons stepped in to provide instruction for the remaining sessions. Thus, Jekabsons was allowed the opportunity to directly evaluate Seals' ability to make a gel and then run samples.

Jekabsons, in reliance on both his direct observation of Plaintiff and his observation of Plaintiff's interaction with Huckabee, ultimately assigned Seals a B for the semester. Believing his performance worthy of an A, Plaintiff exercised his ability to appeal that grade under the University's academic appeals process. As part of that process, Seals contested the grade with Jekabsons, the biology department chair, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and, finally, the Office of the Provost. During the course of that proceeding, Jekabsons was asked by the biology chair to provide his reasoning for the grade. In that prepared statement, Jekabsons concluded that:

Based upon the repeated training [Seals] received, the explicit communication of my expectations that he be able to perform these tasks independently, and my observations of his performance after being trained in the lab for about 14 weeks, I did not feel that he performed at a superior or excellent level as required for an A. The tasks set forth for [Seals], as well as my expectations, were not unreasonable, as these types of protocols are routinely taught to undergraduates in cell biology courses. I did not quantify any of these tasks in the form of a test or quiz (this is rarely, if ever done when conducting research), but, based upon my more than 20 years of lab experience, could confidently conclude that [Seals] exhibited significant deficiencies in some of the benchwork.

Seals, on the other hand, argued that the grade was unfair based on the fact that Jekabsons had failed to provide him with a syllabus and had graded him on a subjective basis. Nonetheless, the grade was affirmed at every level of the University appeal process.[2] Following the conclusion of that appeal, Jekabsons informed Seals that he could no longer serve as his thesis advisor. Seals paints the foregoing acts as constitutional violations, contending that Jekabsons " took away and infringed upon [Seals'] property interest being his grade,

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by not giving him a syllabus and/or by not grading him objectively."

Additionally, Seals seeks review of a C assigned for his performance in Introductory Physiology (BISC 330). That class, taught by Carol Britson, also involved a significant laboratory component. Britson delegated the direction of the lab component to her teaching assistant. The course syllabus stated that grading would be based on the students' performance in both the lecture and laboratory components of the course, and that students would be graded based on their contributions to the class, willingness to work in groups, initiative, patience, intellectual curiosity, and personal integrity. Further, the syllabus stated that students achieving 80-89% in the course would receive a B, while students achieving 70-79% would receive a C.

During the course of the semester, students could earn up to twenty-five participation points for their performance in the class. According to Britson, at some point during the semester her graduate assistant complained that several students were sleeping, texting, and talking during lab class. Britson avers that she observed similar behavior among the students and had specifically observed Plaintiff banging on the classroom door when he was late to class and the door was locked, refusing to turn in quizzes in a timely manner, and refusing to turn in his final exam after the time period had expired. Accordingly, when the graduate assistant turned in a maximum of twenty-five participation points for every student in the class, Britson nonetheless made deductions for students she had observed engaging in disruptive behaviors.

In the case of Plaintiff, Britson reduced his participation grade to a score of twenty. The reduced participation score gave Plaintiff a total score of 78.95, a C. Although Seals thereafter complained that Britson had no right to deviate from the participation grade recommended by her teaching assistant, Britson pointed out that even had Seals been given a maximum participation score, his total would still have only been a 79.25. Seals also, however, complained that he did not have an opportunity to review graded assignments that were left outside her office and that such practice should be against University policy. Seals also complained that Britson filed a report with the campus police, alleging that a certified letter sent by Seals was suspicious, but that her report was disingenuous. Nonetheless, Seals failed to appeal Britson's assigned grade under the University policy.

Now, Seals argues that " Britson's conduct [was] an arbitrary taking of his property rights in the syllabus and the student handbook regarding grading." Further, Seals claims that he was defamed by Britson when she made " false statements regarding [Plaintiff's] grade" and suggested " to campus police that something was wrong or illegal about the mail."

Meanwhile, while continuing in his search for a thesis advisor, Seals soon after enlisted Matthew Reysen of the University's psychology department to serve as his advisor. Seals also attempts to contest one of the final grades ultimately assigned by Reysen. As his advisor, Reysen initially provided instruction for PSY 420, another directed study class in which Seals was expected to complete a literature review as the first phase of his thesis. Seals was assigned five scholarly articles and subsequently prepared a review for Reysen's evaluation. Initially finding the work to be acceptable, Seals was assigned an A in the course. The following semester, Seals was again enrolled in PSY 420 and was expected to continue his work on the thesis.

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Although the reasoning is disputed, several months passed before Seals and Reysen again communicated regarding his progress on the thesis. Despite the class theoretically beginning in January, the two did not have significant dialogue until March. Seals thereafter presented Reysen with a draft literature review, the introduction to his thesis, on March 10, 2011. According to Reysen, the paper contained numerous instances of plagiarized or improperly cited material. Reysen thereafter informed Plaintiff that the paper needed significant revision before it would be acceptable. Reysen pointed out several passages which would constitute plagiarized material if ultimately submitted in the same form.

On May 1, 2011, Seals submitted a draft of his entire thesis. Plaintiff's thesis defense was scheduled for May 5, 2011 with three faculty readers serving on his review committee. That panel was composed of John Samonds, Associate Dean of the Honors College, Elizabeth Boerger, Assistant Professor of Psychology, and Reysen. After reviewing the draft, Boerger, Samonds, and Reysen were in agreement that the thesis would not be approved without significant revision. Additionally, all three detected numerous incidences of plagiarized material. According to Samonds, he was immediately " disturbed by the apparent plagiarism." He thereafter used an internet program to determine whether the paper actually contained such plagiarized material. The results of that scan revealed many similarities between the language of the thesis and the articles on which Plaintiff largely relied. As Samonds stated, he then emailed Reysen and " told him that I had significant concerns about the extensive plagiarism it contained." Boerger, on the other hand, " was shocked at what a bad paper [Seals] presented, both because of extensive plagiarism and poor content." Based on her recollection, " I was upset when I read the paper. It was obviously not a passing paper."

After the initial review of the draft, Samonds and Reysen debated whether they should initiate an academic dishonesty case and give Seals an F or allow him the opportunity to make revisions. They decided to go ahead with the defense as scheduled and conduct a lengthy discussion afterward, defining plagiarism and providing suggestions for revision. On May 5, Seals presented his thesis as planned. The thesis was not approved, but Seals was provided an opportunity to make corrections and was given constructive criticism regarding necessary modifications. According to Boerger, although " [t]he plagiarism in the thesis was extensive," Seals " did not seem to understand the severity of the problems with his paper." She further asserted, " I asked [Seals] why he thought that copying so extensively from the work of others was acceptable. He replied that he did not think anyone would read his paper that carefully." The committee left Seals with their comments, and Reysen entered an interim grade of incomplete for the course.

Afterward, Reysen emailed " almost every week after that defense, asking is there anything I can do to help; do you have any questions about anything. And [Seals] responded to all of those, I believe, saying no, he was working on it." Approximately a month later, Seals forwarded a revised draft of the thesis. Reysen testified, " I read the paper. I noticed that there was still--there was still a great deal of plagiarism present in the paper." Accordingly, Reysen informed Seals that he was no longer willing to serve as his thesis advisor. Reysen ultimately assigned Seals a D for his performance in the second semester of PSY 420, but did not initiate an academic dishonesty case. Seals contests Reysen's perception of plagiarized

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material in the thesis and now argues that " Reysen's conduct [was] an arbitrary taking of [Plaintiff's] property rights in the syllabus and in the student handbook regarding grading." Further, Plaintiff avers that " Reysen is also liable . . . for the defamatory and false statements that [Plaintiff] plagiarized his thesis work."

Finally, Plaintiff also attempts to rely on this Court to challenge his assigned grade for Mammalogy (BISC 350), which was taught by Richard Buchholz. Seals also enrolled in BISC 350 in the spring semester of 2011 and was assigned an F for his performance. According to Plaintiff's complaint, " Of course [Seals] objected and takes the position that he should have received at least a C."

According to Buchholz, Seals' grade in Mammalogy stemmed from the fact that he was discovered cheating on the final exam. Specifically, Buchholz testified that " there were other students taking their exams when I observed [Seals] using his cheat notes from under his shirt." As Buchholz recalled, the incident " was reported to me by another student, and that's how I knew to watch Edward, and that's how I then observed him using the index cards." As Seals turned his final exam in, Buchholz confronted him regarding his suspicions. Buchholz further testified that after additional prodding, Seals pulled several note cards from his pocket and handed them over.

Seals, on the other hand, recalls the incident quite differently. According to Seals, the confrontation transpired as follows:

[A]fter turning in my final exam, [Buchholz] had accused me of using note cards. And I said, " Accusing me of being--of using note cards?" And he said, " Yeah. Yes, sir, Mr. Seals, and the only reason why I didn't come and take your exam during the test time is because I don't want to--I wanted to save you the embarrassment of your friends and your classmates." And then that's when I went on to add, " Well, if I was using note cards, I mean, I would appreciate it if you would have contacted me during the test, not when it's you and I in here alone, and you are putting me up against a wall." So I proceeded to get my book bag. It was in the closet because we all have to put our book bags in the closet. And so I opened up the front of my book bag and I said, " Dr. ...

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