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Coffman v. Hutchinson Community College

United States District Court, D. Kansas

June 22, 2018



          Sam A. Crow, U.S. District Senior Judge

         The plaintiff, Dustin D. Coffman, appears pro se bringing this action alleging he was dismissed from the nursing program at Hutchinson Community College (“HCC”) in a manner that violated his federal and state constitutional rights and that created actionable state common-law claims. The case comes before the court on the defendants' second motion to dismiss (ECF# 70) and on the plaintiff's motions for ruling (ECF# 106 and 107). Last year when it was the only defendant to have been properly served, HCC filed a motion to dismiss. (ECF# 21). The court granted the motion in part finding it was without jurisdiction to address the plaintiff's state law tort claims. ECF# 28. The court, however, denied the balance of HCC's motion, because it failed to address the allegations in the plaintiff's supplement (ECF# 7) to his form complaint (ECF# 1). ECF# 28. All defendants now move to dismiss for failure to state a claim for relief, and the individual defendants also seek dismissal on qualified immunity grounds. ECF# 70.

         The defendants filed a notice on January 10, 2018, certifying that they had served this motion, among other pleadings, by mail. ECF# 79. The pro se plaintiff, Dustin Coffman, thereafter submitted multiple filings, some or all of which are intended to be his response to the defendants' motion. ECF# 85, 91, 92, and 93. None of these submissions were filed within the 21-day deadline imposed by D. Kan. Rule 6.1(d)(2). Without objecting to the plaintiff's untimely responses, the defendants then timely filed their reply. ECF# 97. Thereafter, Mr. Coffman filed yet another document that also appears to address the merits of defendants' motion to dismiss. ECF# 100. The defendants object to this late filing and ask the court to strike it as either an untimely response or a sur-reply filed without leave of the court. ECF# 102. Mr. Coffman has been warned repeatedly on the importance of following the court's local rules and particularly “Rule 7.1 that governs the filing of motions and responses and replies thereto and Rule 7.6 that governs briefs and memoranda.” ECF## 19 and 28, p. 4. The court sustains the defendants' objection and shall disregard the plaintiff's filing at ECF# 100.

         Rule 12(b)(6) Standards and Qualified Immunity

          The Tenth Circuit recently summarized the relevant standards governing a court's analysis of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim for relief:

“A pleading is required to contain ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” SEC v. Shields, 744 F.3d 633, 640 (10th Cir. 2014) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). “We accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint and view them in the light most favorable to the” plaintiff. Id. (quoting Burnett v. Mortg. Elec. Registration Sys., Inc., 706 F.3d 1231, 1235 (10th Cir. 2013)). We then “determine whether the plaintiff has provided ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” George [v. Urban Settlement Servs.], 833 F.3d [1242] at 1247 [(10th Cir. 2016)] (quoting Hogan v. Winder, 762 F.3d 1096, 1104 (10th Cir. 2014)).
“In determining the plausibility of a claim, we look to the elements of the particular cause of action, keeping in mind that the Rule 12(b)(6) standard [does not] require a plaintiff to ‘set forth a prima facie case for each element.'” Id. (quoting Khalik v. United Air Lines, 671 F.3d 1188, 1192-93 (10th Cir. 2012)). “The nature and specificity of the allegations required to state a plausible claim will vary based on context.” Kan. Penn Gaming, LLC v. Collins, 656 F.3d 1210, 1215 (10th Cir. 2011). But “mere ‘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.” Id. at 1214 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). Thus, a “claim is facially plausible if the plaintiff has pled ‘factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'” George, 833 F.3d at 1247 (quoting Hogan, 762 F.3d at 1104, which in turn quotes Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009)).
However, “when legal conclusions are involved in the complaint[, ] ‘the tenet that'” we accept the allegations as true “is inapplicable to [those] conclusions.” Shields, 744 F.3d at 640 (second alteration in original) (citation omitted).

Safe Streets Alliance v. Hickenlooper, 859 F.3d 865, 878 (10th Cir. 2017).

         The Tenth Circuit recently observed that Twombly requires sufficient factual allegations to show a violation of the plaintiff's constitutional rights and “requires enough specificity to give the defendant notice of the claim asserted.” Matthews v. Bergdorf, 889 F.3d 1136, 1144 n.

         2 (10th Cir. 2018). This bite taken by the Twombly standard may be “greater” when the affirmative defense of qualified immunity is being analyzed:

Qualified immunity exists “to protect public officials from the ‘broad-ranging discovery' that can be ‘peculiarly disruptive of effective government.'” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 646 n. 6, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 817, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982)). Defendants are permitted to appeal from the denial of a motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds precisely to spare them the ordeal of discovery if the complaint fails to allege a constitutional violation or if the alleged violation was not clearly established. Behrens v. Pelletier, 516 U.S. 299, 306, 116 S.Ct. 834, 133 L.Ed.2d 773 (1996). To “nudge their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, ” Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1974, in this context, plaintiffs must allege facts sufficient to show (assuming they are true) that the defendants plausibly violated their constitutional rights, and that those rights were clearly established at the time. This requires enough allegations to give the defendants notice of the theory under which their claim is made.
This does not mean that complaints in cases subject to qualified immunity defenses must include “all the factual allegations necessary to sustain a conclusion that defendant violated clearly established law.” Breidenbach v. Bolish, 126 F.3d 1288, 1293 (10th Cir. 1997). In Currier we found this heightened pleading standard superceded by the Court's decision in Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 118 S.Ct. 1584, 140 L.Ed.2d 759 (1998). Currier v. Doran, 242 F.3d 905, 916 (10th Cir.2001). Twombly, too, rejects a heightened pleading standard. 127 S.Ct. at 1973-74. However, the complaint must meet the minimal standard of notice pleading as articulated by the Court in Twombly. Although we apply “the same standard in evaluating dismissals in qualified immunity cases as to dismissals generally, ” Shero v. City of Grove, Okl., 510 F.3d 1196, 1200 (10th Cir.2007), complaints in § 1983 cases against individual government actors pose a greater likelihood of failures in notice and plausibility because they typically include complex claims against multiple defendants. The Twombly standard may have greater bite in such contexts, appropriately reflecting the special interest in resolving the affirmative defense of qualified immunity “at the earliest possible stage of a litigation.” Anderson, 483 U.S. at 646 n. 6, 107 S.Ct. 3034; Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727. Without allegations sufficient to make clear the “grounds” on which the plaintiff is entitled to relief, Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1965 n. 3, it would be impossible for the court to perform its function of determining, at an early stage in the litigation, whether the asserted claim is clearly established.

Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1248-49 (10th Cir. 2008) (footnote omitted).

         Plaintiff's Complaint ECF# 1 and 7.

         The court understands the defendants' struggle to understand what the plaintiff is asserting as his claims for relief. The plaintiff's filings are not “a short and plain statement” as contemplated by Rule 8(a). The plaintiff's allegations intermingle conclusory factual allegations of his own circumstances with excerpts of factual findings and legal conclusions taken from an order apparently issued by a federal district court from Michigan. This other court order involves a case that has no apparent legal or factual relationship to these Kansas proceedings. The plaintiff's filings confusingly blend his own factual allegations with excerpts from that court order. The potential for confusion is aggravated by the plaintiff's failure to use quotation marks or citations. In addition, the plaintiff's filings make it difficult to parse which factual allegations are deemed relevant for consideration under each of the respective claims for relief.

         The plaintiff's complaint entitles one section, “Introduction, ” and sets out there a summary listing of his alleged claims against the defendants:

1) Violation of the plaintiff's First amendment (retaliation); 2) violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause; 3) Violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause; 4) Violation of the Kansas constitutional right to free speech; 5) Violation of Kansas' constitutional right to due process; 6) Violation of Kansas' constitutional right of equal protection under the law; 7) Breach of contract; 8) Defamation (as to defendants Jay Ballard and Kathy Sanchez); 9) Libel and slander as to defendants Jay Ballard and Kathy Sanchez; 10) Tortious interference with a contract as to defendants Debra Heckler, Cindy Hoss, Janet Hamilton, Kathy Sanchez and Jay Ballard; 11) Intentional infliction of emotional distress; 12) Violation of the Kansas Civil Rights Act; and 13) Violation of the Kansas victim protection act.

ECF# 7, p. 1. And, as taken from that section of the plaintiff's complaint entitled, “Statement of Facts, ” the court gleans the following as relevant allegations of fact.

         In the fall of 2014, Dustin Coffman enrolled in HCC and was later accepted in the R.N. online bridge program in the Spring of 2015. The bridge program required Coffman to participate in a clinical rotation, and his participation was supervised in part by HCC's instructors, Jay Ballard and Kathy Sanchez, who are individually named as defendants.

         Coffman alleges that during the Summer 2015 semester, his supervisors Ballard and Sanchez displayed a negative change of attitude toward him. Ballard criticized Coffman before other students and charge nurses for speaking Spanish to a patient and for eating chocolate given to him by a charge nurse. Ballard also told Coffman that he could not go into the hospital chapel and pray during his break and that he could “not attempt to outsource a patient to a rehab facility of the Christian faith.” ECF# 7, p. 2.

         At the end of the plaintiff's clinical rotation on July 24, 2015, Ballard and Sanchez met with Coffman. They told him that, “he might have to sign a corrective action contract with the school for issues, that were discussed, by the Defendant Jay Ballard and for being sick and would be asked to do a virtual makeup of the rotation.” Id. at pp. 2-3. “Nothing was mentioned about Unprofessional conduct by the Defendant in that meeting.” Id. at p. 3.

         The plaintiff alleges he had no problem with making up the clinical rotation day he missed because he had a contagious skin issue. When he got home with the material for the makeup assignment, Coffman realized the text book and the work book were different editions, and he could not complete the timed testing applications because the page references did not correspond. Because of this problem, Coffman alleges he “immediately” initiated a telephone conference with the defendant Sanchez. He asked two other persons to listen in as his witnesses. During the conference call, Sanchez said they “could just work something else out next semester” and also said, “do not worry about the corrective action contract as well.” Id. at p. 3.

         Two weeks before the start of the next school semester, which was Coffman's final semester of the registered nurse program, he learned that the corrective action contract was still an “issue.” Id. As an exhibit to his memorandum opposing dismissal, the plaintiff attaches a copy of an email from Sanchez addressed to him and dated July 30, 2015, at 5:47 pm:

Per our conversation on July 24, 2015, I am sending you the Corrective Action Contract for NR 216. Please read, review, download, add your student perception, sign and return by Aug 15, 2015. You may send your signed copy by mail or you may scan the signed copy and send by your Hutchinson Community College email or you may electronic sign and return through your Hutchinson Community College email. Kathryn Sanchez

ECF# 93, p. 51. The plaintiff also submits a copy of three emails which he sent to Sanchez in reply later that evening. The first of which reads, “Per our texts conversational said that I did not have too.” Id. The plaintiff also attaches to his memorandum copies of emails he sent on August 3, 2015, to Ms. Sanchez. They state:

This contract has several issues
1. This is my first corrective action and the wording says final corrective action.
2. The software should not allow scheduling of an OB day if it is not available.
3. We had visited in the break room post conference after my second day was at IV infusion about me going to the ER on my third clinical day.
4. The assignments are not correct via text messages about not doing unit six. Unit six is already filled in and the data disk information will not change so that could be considered cheating.
5. Time frame for completion of extra assignment is not clear.
6. It took until almost 1100 am to receive any texts on the issue of the wrong day due to tech issues.
7. I notified every Instructor about the issue.
8. I was also told by the director that there would be no problems on a scheduling issues.
9. The assignments has the wrong editions of text book and work book.
10. 1st corrective contract not final wording needs changed.
11. Text correspondence and verbal communication between you and I stated no need for this contract.
12. Extension was granted via communication between us due to the text book work book not being the same is not in the contract.
13. Why do you need a contract? Unless its for some other motives?
14. Did the other student who had to do make up work over break have a contract? Please show evidence of for review.
Second email:
I also have all the text data from all instructors plus I record my clinical day on my dictation recorder. This is to ensure the facts are not a matter of hearsay for any ...

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