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Smith v. Mississippi State University

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

February 16, 2018




         Before the Court is Mississippi State University's motion to dismiss, Doc. #9; Linda Mitchell, Reuben Moore, Juli Rester, and Paula Threadgill's motion to dismiss, Doc. #8; and Elois B. Smith's motion to amend her complaint, Doc. #21.


         Procedural History

         On March 1, 2017, Elois B. Smith filed a complaint in this Court against Mississippi State University (“MSU”), Reuben Moore, Paula Threadgill, Linda Mitchell, and Juli[1] Rester. Doc. #1. In her complaint, Smith alleges claims for sex discrimination, race discrimination, and retaliation in violation of Title VII; and claims for violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. at 5-8. On these claims, Smith seeks to recover compensatory and punitive damages. Id. at 8.

         On March 30, 2017, Moore, Threadgill, Mitchell, and Rester (collectively, “Individual Defendants”) filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). Doc. #8. The same day, MSU filed a motion to dismiss Smith's § 1983 claims and her demand for punitive damages pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). Doc. #9. Smith timely responded in opposition to both motions. Docs. #15, #17. MSU and the Individual Defendants timely replied. Docs. #19, #20.

         On June 7, 2017, Smith filed a motion to amend her complaint. Doc. #21. MSU and the Individual Defendants timely responded in opposition. Docs. #24, #26. Smith did not reply.


         Motion to Dismiss Standards

         The motions filed by MSU and the Individual Defendants both seek dismissal of Smith's claims under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).

         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         “Motions filed under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allow a party to challenge the subject matter jurisdiction of the district court to hear a case.” Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir. 2001). A court may dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on “(1) the complaint alone; (2) the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts evidenced in the record; or (3) the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of disputed facts.” Crane v. Johnson, 783 F.3d 244, 251 (5th Cir. 2015).

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         “To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the complaint does not need detailed factual allegations, but it must provide the plaintiff's grounds for entitlement for relief-including factual allegations that, when assumed to be true, raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Ruiz v. Brennan, 851 F.3d 464, 468 (5th Cir. 2017). Under this standard, a court must “accept all well-pleaded facts as true.” New Orleans City v. Ambac Assurance Corp., 815 F.3d 196, 199-200 (5th Cir. 2016) (quotation marks omitted).


         Factual Allegations

         Smith, an African American woman, started working at MSU as a Family Consumer Science Extension Agent on October 1, 2014. Doc. #1 at ¶ 10. Since beginning work at MSU, Smith experienced “sexual harassment, hostility, and racial insensitivity from her peers and superiors.” Id. at ¶ 11. Additionally, Smith was subjected to “offensive racial remarks and slurs” by the “Defendants”[2] and noticed that “a majority of African-American employees were terminated.” Id. at ¶ 12. At some point, Smith reported the alleged sexual harassment to MSU's human resources department and received a response “approximately” two weeks later. Id. at 11.

         On or about January 6, 2016, Smith met with Threadgill and an unidentified individual. Id. at ¶ 13. At this meeting, Smith was informed that she engaged in “unprofessional [behavior] towards a County Extension Sponsor.” Id. As a result of this allegation, Smith received a “write-up” and was placed on an eight-week administrative leave. Id. Later, Smith contacted the county sponsor toward whom she was allegedly unprofessional, and the county sponsor “denied any unprofessional behavior” on Smith's part. Id. at ¶ 14.

         Subsequently, Smith met with the “Defendants” regarding her report of sexual harassment and was “advised that her pay would increase as an incentive to cease all assertions … of sexual harassment.” Id. at ¶ 15. After this meeting, Smith was excluded from meetings “directly related to her position” and “MSU management employees” instructed Smith's coworkers “not to associate with her.” Id.

         On or about March 9, 2016, Smith attended a meeting with Moore, Threadgill, Mitchell, and Rester. Id. at ¶ 17. During this meeting, Smith's employment with MSU was terminated and Moore instructed Smith that he “did not want to hear anything [she] ha[d] to say, and [she] should turn in any MSU property within [her] possession.” Id. Smith's termination letter indicated that she was terminated for unprofessional behavior. Id. at ¶ 18.


         MSU's Motion to Dismiss

         MSU's motion to dismiss seeks dismissal of Smith's § 1983 claims and her demand for punitive damages.

         A. § 1983 Claims

         In the brief accompanying its motion, MSU argues that it is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity with respect to Smith's § 1983 claims and that it is not a “person” for the purposes of § 1983. In her response, Smith does not address either ground for dismissal. Rather, she discusses the elements of establishing an individual capacity claim under § 1983. Smith also contends that Eleventh Amendment immunity has been abrogated but only with respect to claims arising under Title VII, id. at ¶ 8; a statute not implicated by the motion to dismiss.

         “Because sovereign immunity deprives the [federal] court of jurisdiction, … claims barred by sovereign immunity can be dismissed only under Rule 12(b)(1) and not with prejudice.” Warnock v. Pecos Cty., 88 F.3d 341, 343 (5th Cir. 1996). Generally, “[w]hen a Rule 12(b)(1) motion is filed in conjunction with other Rule 12 motions, the court should consider the Rule 12(b)(1) motion jurisdictional attack before addressing any attack on the merits.” Ramming, 281 F.3d at 161. However, the Supreme Court has “routinely addressed before the question whether the Eleventh Amendment forbids a particular statutory cause of action to be asserted against States, the question whether the statute itself permits the cause of action it creates to be asserted against ...

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