United States District Court, D. Kansas
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
JULIE A. ROBINSON, District Judge.
Plaintiff Grace Lee filed a 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 position and from her graduate studies in statistics at KSU. The Court previously dismissed all claims against KSU, all claims against Defendants in their official capacities, Counts II through X against Defendants in their individual capacities, and the procedural due process claim in Count I against Defendants Shanklin, Crawford, Wang, and Reed in their individual capacities. The only remaining claim in this case is Plaintiff's procedural due process claim in Count I against Defendants Guikema and Neill ("Movants") in their individual capacities.
Before the Court are Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 67), Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File a Surreply Memorandum in Opposition To Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 77), and Defendants' Motion to Strike Surreply (Doc. 78). Defendants argue they are protected by qualified immunity. Movants also argue that even if they are not protected by qualified immunity there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and Movants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Count I. The motion is fully briefed, and the Court is prepared to rule. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion for Summary Judgment is granted. Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File a Surreply is granted and Movants' Motion to Strike is denied.
I. Standards for Summary Judgment on Qualified Immunity
Defendants move for summary judgment on Plaintiff's procedural due process claim in Count I, on the basis that they are protected by qualified immunity and are thus entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Qualified immunity protects public officials performing discretionary functions unless their conduct violates "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Qualified immunity leaves "ample room for mistaken judgments, " protecting "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law."
As the Tenth Circuit explained in Rojas v. Anderson,  "because qualified immunity is designed to protect public officials from spending inordinate time and money defending erroneous suits at trial, " the qualified immunity defense triggers a modified summary judgment standard. The initial burden rests on the plaintiff, rather than the defendant; and the plaintiff must first "clear two hurdles:" (1) demonstrate that the defendant violated her constitutional or statutory rights; and (2) demonstrate that the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged unlawful activity. The court may decide the appropriate order to consider these issues. Only if the plaintiff clears these hurdles does the burden shift back to the movant defendant to make the traditional showing that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
In determining whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a violation of her constitutional or statutory rights and that the right was clearly established at the time, the court must view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. In Scott v. Harris,  the Supreme Court held that "[T]his usually means adopting... the plaintiff's version of the facts, " unless that version "is so utterly discredited by the record that no reasonable jury could have believed him." In Scott, the plaintiff's version of the facts was discredited by a videotape that completely contradicted plaintiff. Thus, although the court should generally accept the non-movant plaintiff's version of the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the Court need not accept alleged facts that are contradicted or discredited by the record. Moreover, citing to the Scott decision, the Tenth Circuit has held that "because at summary judgment we are beyond the pleading phase of the litigation, a plaintiff's version of the facts must find support in the record..." In that sense, the court does not discard the Rule 56 process, but relies upon facts supported by the record, while viewing those facts and reasonable inferences therefrom, in the light most favorable to plaintiff.
Because Plaintiff proceeds pro se, some additional considerations frame the Court's analysis. The Court must construe Plaintiff's pleadings liberally and apply a less stringent standard than that which is applicable to attorneys. However, the Court may not provide additional factual allegations "to round out a plaintiff's complaint or construct a legal theory on a plaintiff's behalf." Additionally, a pro se litigant is not excused from complying with the rules of the court and is subject to the consequences of noncompliance.
Plaintiff filed but failed to correctly docket a sur-reply to Movants' Motion for Summary Judgment. Movants oppose Plaintiff's attempt to file a sur-reply on that basis as well as that Plaintiff's motion fails to show a sur-reply is warranted. The Court is mindful of the effort expended by Movants in attempting to synthesize the factual averments in their reply brief. The Court also believes Plaintiff had a fair opportunity to litigate the factual clarifications Movants made in their Reply brief. However, given Plaintiff's status as a pro se litigant, the Court must construe Plaintiff's filings more liberally than those of a licensed attorney. Given these facts, the Court will consider Plaintiff's sur-reply brief, despite her failure to clearly demonstrate that a sur-reply brief is appropriate in this case.
II. Uncontroverted Facts and Factual Allegations by Plaintiff that are Supported by the Record
The Court deems uncontroverted, those facts that are supported by the record to which Plaintiff either stipulates, or fails to respond or otherwise properly controvert with reference to record evidence. Consistent with the standards discussed above, the Court accepts Plaintiff's factual allegations to the extent they are properly supported by the record. Many of Plaintiff's additional facts in her response to the motion for summary judgment are not properly supported by the record, are based on inadmissible hearsay, or are conclusory statements. These additional facts the Court disregards. Also, the Court does not accept factual allegations that are so utterly discredited by the record that no reasonable jury could believe them. Nor does the Court accept Plaintiff's attempt to controvert admissions she made in response to defendants' request for admissions. Finally, the Court views these uncontroverted and stipulated facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to Plaintiff.
In 2006, Plaintiff Grace Lee was admitted into the KSU graduate program in statistics. She received a letter informing her of the Graduate School's requirement that graduate students are responsible for diligent pursuit and timely completion of all responsibilities associated with progress toward a degree. The letter also contained a citation to the website containing the Graduate Handbook and other Graduate School documents and asked that she review these materials. Plaintiff received and had access to a copy of both the Graduate School Handbook and the Statistics Department Handbook. The Graduate Handbook states, and Plaintiff was aware, that graduate students, including those in the Statistics Department who fail to make satisfactory progress, will lose departmental support and will be recommended for academic dismissal from the Graduate School.
The Statistics Department Handbook states that each student seeking a Ph.D. must conduct dissertation research under a major professor. A dissertation must make an original contribution to knowledge in the student's chosen field. The major professor often helps the student with the idea or refining the idea for the dissertation research topic, which is related to the major professor's areas of research. Serving as a major professor is a substantial commitment of time and expertise, which is reflected in the Statistics Department policy that the dissertation topic remains with the major professor if the student fails to make sufficient progress. General oversight is conducted by a supervisory committee that is chaired by the major professor.
The Statistics Department Handbook further provides that students are expected to make adequate progress in the program-in most cases, two years to complete the masters degree and four years beyond that masters degree to complete the Ph.D. The Statistics Department Handbook also provides that the student's preliminary examination should be taken within five semesters, excluding summers, of passing the qualifying examination. But these are not hard deadlines.
The Statistics Department Handbook also states that "... at the discretion of the major professor and/or supervisory committee, if sufficient progress is not being made on a degree research topic then the student must relinquish the research topic for degree purposes." In the Statistics Department, student progress is annually reviewed by the Student Progress Committee; and the Graduate Student Progress Committee of the Graduate School makes a list every semester of students it determines are not making satisfactory progress toward completion of a degree.
Plaintiff and her major professor, Dr. Haiyan Wang, had a difficult relationship. Dr. Wang served as Plaintiff's sole major professor until Plaintiff filed a grievance alleging that Dr. Wang had fallen short of her duties as a major professor, and exhibited unprofessional and abusive conduct towards Plaintiff. The grievance was resolved by Dr. James Neill, the head of the Statistics Department, agreeing to serve with Dr. Wang as a co-major professor to Plaintiff, so Plaintiff could continue her dissertation work with Dr. Wang.
Then, on March 18, 2012, Plaintiff filed a second grievance seeking to remove Dr. Wang as her major professor. Students are permitted to change their major professor. It is the policy of the Graduate School that students are responsible for finding a major professor who is willing to oversee their work in an area of mutual research interest; it is not the policy of the Graduate School to assign major professors to students. The Graduate School approved Plaintiff's grievance, and on April 4, Plaintiff signed a Program/Committee Change Form removing Dr. Wang and Dr. Neill as Plaintiff's major professors. Plaintiff did not notice that Dr. Neill's name had been removed from the form and did not realize that by signing the form, she in effect had no major professor. But Dr. Neill, who works in a different area of statistics, told Plaintiff that she needed a major professor to supervise her research. And Plaintiff knew that she could not obtain a Ph.D. without having a major professor to supervise her dissertation research.
On April 9, 2012, Dr. Neill told Plaintiff that she was "free to find another professor within the department with which to work, " but "[i]n order to track your academic progress, you will need to keep me informed as to which faculty is available and willing to supervise your work." At a staff meeting on April 13, Dr. Neill and other Statistics Department faculty discussed Plaintiff's situation and the Statistics Department policy that a dissertation topic was relinquished to the major professor when a student did not make satisfactory progress. Then on April 19, the Statistics Department Student Progress Committee ("SPC"), chaired by Dr. James Higgins, met and determined that Plaintiff and one other student were not making sufficient progress. Plaintiff was not informed of, nor present at the committee meeting. On April 20, the committee reported its findings to Dr. Neill, that Plaintiff was not making adequate ...