United States District Court, D. Kansas
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
JULIE A. ROBINSON, District Judge.
Plaintiff Grace Lee filed a ten-count complaint against Kansas State University ("KSU"), Dr. Carol W. Shanklin, Dr. James A. Guikema, Dr. Duane W. Crawford, Dr. James W. Neill, Dr. Haiyan Wang, and Ms. Heather Reed ("Defendants"), seeking damages related to her termination from a graduate teaching assistant ("GTA") position and from her graduate studies in statistics at KSU. Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss,  pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) and 12(b)(1), which the Court granted in part and denied in part. The Court dismissed all claims against KSU and all claims against the remaining defendants in their official capacities. The Court also dismissed Counts II through X against Defendants in their individual capacities. Thus, the only claim remaining is Plaintiff's procedural due process claim in Count I against Defendants in their individual capacities. Defendants Shanklin, Crawford, Wang and Reed ("Movants") filed a second Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 31), pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), which is currently before the Court. Defendants Guikema and Neill do not join in the motion. Movants argue that Plaintiff has failed to allege facts sufficient to state a claim against them under Count I and that they are protected by qualified immunity. The motion is fully briefed and the Court is prepared to rule. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion to Dismiss is granted.
I. Qualified Immunity
Movants argue that even if the Complaint alleges sufficient facts to state a claim, they are entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity "protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" "Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments, " and "protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.'" Because qualified immunity is the "norm" in private actions against public officials, there is a presumption of immunity when the defense is raised. When a defendant claims qualified immunity, the plaintiff bears the "heavy two-part burden" of showing (1) the defendant's violation of a constitutional right; and (2) that the "infringed right at issue was clearly established at the time of the allegedly unlawful activity such that a reasonable [official] would have known that his or her challenged conduct was illegal."
First, as the Court stated in its June 7, 2013 Memorandum and Order, a graduate student has a constitutional right to due process before she can be deprived of her property interest in her continued enrollment and graduate education. Courts in the Tenth Circuit have consistently upheld a graduate student's property interest in her continued graduate education. However, the inquiry does not end there, and the Court must determine whether this right is clearly established, and a reasonable official would have known that the conduct alleged by Plaintiff was unconstitutional.
This part of the qualified immunity analysis can be considered along with the motion to dismiss the § 1983 claim for failure to state a claim. "Often, § 1983... liability and the defense of qualified immunity travel hand-in-hand, and when they do, we consider their substantive components together." The Tenth Circuit in Dodds v. Richardson , stated that "[b]ecause a plaintiff can neither recover under § 1983 from a government official nor overcome the official's assertion of qualified immunity without demonstrating that official violated his constitutional or statutory rights, the legal analysis required to surmount these separate obstacles is often related, if not identical." Therefore, the Court will address the Rule 12(b)(6) challenge and the qualified immunity arguments together under Count I below.
II. Rule 12(b)(6)
A. Legal Standard
Rule 12(b)(6) provides a vehicle for a party to challenge the legal sufficiency of a claim. The requirements underlying the legal sufficiency of a claim stem from Rule 8(a), which requires "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must present factual allegations, assumed to be true, that "raise a right to relief above the speculative level, " and must contain "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." "[T]he complaint must give the court reason to believe that this plaintiff has a reasonable likelihood of mustering factual support for these claims." The plausibility standard does not require a showing of probability that a defendant has acted unlawfully, but requires more than "a sheer possibility." "[M]ere labels and conclusions, ' and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action' will not suffice; a plaintiff must offer specific factual allegations to support each claim." Finally, the Court must accept the nonmoving party's factual allegations as true and may not dismiss on the ground that it appears unlikely the allegations can be proven.
The Supreme Court has explained the analysis as a two-step process. For the purposes of a motion to dismiss, the court "must take all the factual allegations in the complaint as true, [but] we are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.'" Thus, the court must first determine if the allegations are factual and entitled to an assumption of truth, or merely legal conclusions that are not entitled to an assumption of truth. Second, the court must determine whether the factual allegations, when assumed true, "plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged."
B. Factual Allegations
The Court's previous Memorandum and Order sets forth the factual allegations in detail, and the Court adopts those factual allegations for purposes of the instant Motion to Dismiss. In addition, the Court construes the following facts alleged in Plaintiff's Complaint, in the light most favorable to Plaintiff.
Plaintiff Lee was a graduate student in the Department of Statistics at KSU, but was dismissed from the Department of Statistics, and, subsequently, from the KSU Graduate School. Plaintiff argues she was dismissed in retaliation for filing formal grievances against her former major professor, Dr. Haiyan Wang, and for reporting potential academic fraud on the part of a former KSU Statistics PhD student.
On October 5, 2011, Plaintiff filed a grievance with the Associate Vice President of the KSU Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and Associate Dean of the KSU Graduate School, Dr. James A. Guikema, against Wang, an associate professor within the Department of Statistics at KSU, requesting removal of Wang as her major professor and from the supervisory committee overseeing and advising Plaintiff in the pursuit of her PhD. This grievance followed months of informal complaints by Plaintiff to the Head of the Department of Statistics at KSU, Dr. James W. Neill, with the complaints generating no official action.
In response to the grievance, no hearing was held as required by KSU Graduate School grievance policies, but instead Defendants settled on a compromise suggested by the Interim Associate Dean of the KSU College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Joseph Aistrup. Under the compromise solution, Neill assumed a "co-major professor" role with Wang, who requested to continue as Plaintiff's major professor.
Wang's abusive and unprofessional behavior toward Plaintiff continued unabated for several months, despite Neill's presence as co-major professor. Following consultation with and the advice of the Associate Dean of the KSU Graduate School, Dr. Duane W. Crawford, Jr., Plaintiff filed another grievance against Wang on March 18, 2012. The administration of the KSU Graduate School and the Department of Statistics, including Neill and Guikema, disregarded the grievance procedures set forth in the Graduate Handbook and proceeded without holding a hearing on Plaintiff's grievance. Plaintiff's grievance was approved and Wang was removed from her role as Plaintiff's major professor and from Plaintiff's supervisory committee. Despite Plaintiff's repeated entreaties, Neill removed himself as Plaintiff's co-major professor on or about April 9, 2012, leaving Plaintiff without a major professor.
After Plaintiff's two major professors were removed, she was required to find another major professor in order to continue her studies. On April 19, 2012, Neill informed Plaintiff that her summer GTA position was in jeopardy if she could not locate another major professor by April 27, 2012, because GTA positions were only awarded to students making satisfactory academic progress. Plaintiff contacted every professor within the Department of Statistics in an attempt to locate another major professor, but was unable to secure a new major professor by April 27, 2012, due to the short time-frame, the complexity of her dissertation work and the high faculty turnover in the Statistics Department. On or about April 27, 2012, Plaintiff was terminated from her summer GTA position. Although the reason given for Plaintiff's termination was her lack of a major ...