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Thomas v. Cohen

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

May 16, 2019

RICHARD THOMAS PLAINTIFF
v.
LEE COHEN, et al. DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

         Plaintiff Richard Thomas sues several individuals at the University of Mississippi, alleging, among other things, that they violated his due process rights when they terminated his employment. Those defendants, Noel Wilkins, Lee Cohen, Rebecca Bressler, Rick R. Gregory, Kirsten Dellinger, and Honey Ussery, have moved to dismiss [53] the complaint for failing to state a claim for relief. Thomas has responded. For the reasons set forth below the Court grants the motion in part and denies the motion in part.

         Background

         I. Factual Background

         According to the complaint, [1] Thomas began working as a part-time faculty member at the University in 2006. Compl. [1] at 3, ¶ 10. In the spring semester of 2017, Thomas was teaching four-night classes at the University's DeSoto campus. Id. ¶ 11. A student in one of his classes began staying after class to speak to Thomas and eventually sent Thomas several unsolicited emails. Id. at 4, ¶¶ 12-15. Thomas and the student exchanged several emails, and Thomas requested that the student not speak to University officials about him. Id ¶¶ 16-17.

         Thomas's girlfriend viewed Thomas's emails and made several harassing calls to the student. Id. at 5-6, ¶¶ 25-27. Following these calls, Thomas both called and emailed the student again, stating that they should no longer exchange emails and that they should establish a boundary for their relationship. Id. at 6-7, ¶¶ 29-33.

         The student later learned that Thomas's girlfriend was a police officer at Northwest Community College and filed an incident report with the police department. Id. at 7-8, ¶¶ 35-36. The NWCC police informed Rick Gregory, the executive director of the University's DeSoto Campus, of the incident. Id. at 8, ¶ 37. Several days later, while the student and a classmate were walking toward their car in the parking lot after class, Thomas drove by them, in a manner they asserted made them uncomfortable. Id. at 9-10, ¶¶ 45, 48. The student then filed another incident report against Thomas. After making this report, Gregory interviewed the student with two other University employees present. The University initiated a Title IX investigation.

         Honey Ussery, the University's Title IX Coordinator, performed this investigation. Ussery interviewed Thomas, the student, the classmate, Thomas's girlfriend, and Defendant Rick Gregory, the executive director of the DeSoto campus. Ussery Report [53-3] at 2-5.[2] Additionally, she reviewed the emails sent between Thomas and the student, as well as security video of the parking lot incident. See Ussery Report Ex. 1, 3 & 6. Ussery questioned Thomas both about the emails and the parking lot incident. Id. at 4-5. After the investigation, Ussery issued a report stating that Thomas's explanations did not comport with other evidence she found through the investigation, namely the emails she reviewed and a video of the parking lot incident. Id. at 6. She found that his actions had violated Title IX, and her report made several recommendations, including that he be removed from teaching classes in which the student was enrolled, and that his contract not be renewed at the end of the semester. Id. The report also informed Thomas that the findings of the report constituted grounds for termination and warned that the University might consider dismissing him as a result of the report. Id.

         After receiving the report, Thomas participated in a phone call with Defendant Lee Cohen, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and Kirsten Dellinger, the Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department within the College of Liberal Arts. Compl. At 11, ¶ 57. Thomas alleges that during this call he was informed that his employment with the University was being terminated. Thomas asserts that he did not have an opportunity to object to Ussery's findings during this hearing. Id. at 11-12.

         II. Procedural Background

         Thomas filed his first complaint in this suit against the University of Mississippi and the Board of Trustees of the Institutes of Higher Learning. Thomas amended his complaint to include Cohen, Dellinger, Ussery, Gregory, as well as Noel Wilkins, the Executive Vice Chancellor of the University, and Rebecca Bressler, the Director of Equal Opportunity and Regulatory Compliance. Thomas sued these persons in both their individual and official capacities.

         The Court dismissed the University and the Board of Trustees as being immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. Thomas v. Univ. of Mississippi, No. 3:18-CV-00062-GHD-RP, 2018 WL 6613807, at *2-3 (N.D. Miss. Dec. 17, 2018). The Court also rejected the official capacity claims against the individual defendants under the Eleventh Amendment because Thomas had not pleaded appropriate injunctive relief against them to avail himself of the Ex Parte Young exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity. Id. at *3-4.

         As to the claims against Defendants in their individual capacities, the Court found that Thomas's complaint constituted a shotgun pleading in that it was unclear which claims he asserted against which Defendants, and asserting all claims against all Defendants did not seem warranted by the facts of the complaint. Id. at *5. Thus, the Court ordered Thomas to file a second amended complaint specifically identifying which causes of action he asserted against which Defendants, and the facts supporting those causes. Id. at *6.

         In his current complaint, Thomas again makes the nonspecific allegations that all the Defendants violated his procedural due process rights in both his continued employment and his reputation. To the extent he has identified specific claims against specific individuals, he claims that Cohen and Dellinger deprived him of a protected property interest without due process by terminating him without providing him a hearing and an opportunity to respond to the charges against him. He claims that Gregory violated his constitutionally protected liberty interest in his reputation by allowing two individuals to sit in on an interview he conducted with the student after she made the police report. Against Ussery, he alleges that she deprived him of a protected property and liberty interests by compiling a biased and inaccurate report. He also accuses Ussery of tortiously interfering with his employment contract with the University. He claims that Wilkins violated his constitutional rights for failing to uphold policies that would have prevented Thomas from being fired without a hearing, and he claims Bressler violated his rights by failing to supervise Ussery. It is unclear what specific constitutional rights Thomas claims Wilkins and Bressler violated. Additionally, Thomas alleges that all Defendants breached his contract with the University and that all Defendants violated his substantive due process rights. Thomas sues for money damages, and an injunction directing Defendants to reinstate him as an employee.

         The Defendants have moved to dismiss, arguing that Thomas has failed to state a claim for relief and that they are entitled to qualified immunity.

         12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss Standard

         When deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court is limited to the allegations set forth in the complaint and any documents attached to the complaint. Walker v. Webco Indus., Inc., 562 Fed.Appx. 215, 216-17 (5th Cir. 2014) (citing Kennedy v. Chase Manhattan Bank USA, N.A., 369 F.3d 833, 839 (5th Cir. 2004)). "[A plaintiffs] complaint therefore 'must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face."' Phillips v. City of Dallas, Tex., 781 F.3d 772, 775-76 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009)).

         A claim is facially plausible when the pleaded factual content "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (citing Bell All. Corp. v. Twombly,550 U.S. 544, 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). "[P]laintiffs must allege facts that support the elements of the cause of action in order to make out a valid claim." Webb v. Morella,522 Fed.Appx. 238, 241 (5th Cir. 2013) (quoting City of Clinton, Ark. v. Pilgrim's Pride Corp.,632 F.3d 148, 152-53 (5th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted)). "[C]onclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions will not suffice to prevent a motion to dismiss." Id. (quoting Fernandez-Montes v. Allied Pilots Ass'n,987 F.2d 278, 284 (5th Cir. 1993) (internal quotation marks omitted)). "Dismissal is appropriate when the plaintiff has not alleged 'enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face' and ...


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