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Wright v. Speece

May 14, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Savage, J.


The plaintiff, Walter Sylvester Wright Sr. ("Wright"), has filed this pro se action, alleging that the defendants, Dr. Susan Speece ("Speece") and Dr. Blaine Steensland ("Steensland"), the Chancellor and the Senior Director of Student Affairs, respectively, of Penn State Berks ("Penn State"), violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by conditioning his admission to Penn State upon his attending free counseling sessions. The defendants have moved for summary judgment, arguing that Wright has not alleged any harm caused by the defendants, has no basis for an Eighth Amendment claim and has not alleged facts sufficient to maintain a Fourteenth Amendment claim. Additionally, they argue that there is no allegation of wrongdoing against Speece and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 does not support vicarious liability.

The undisputed evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to Wright and with all reasonable inferences drawn in his favor, does not support a claim of Eighth or Fourteenth Amendment violations. Also, Speece cannot be held liable under § 1983 because there is no vicarious liability under that provision. Therefore, summary judgment will be granted in favor of the defendants.

Factual and Procedural History

This is not a case where an applicant was denied admission. It is one where he refused to comply with a reasonable condition that was mandated by school policy. Only when he chose not to meet the school's requirements was he asked to leave.

While enrolled at Penn State as a non-degree student in the Summer 2008 session, Wright sought admission as a degree candidate. Because his application disclosed a recent expulsion from another university*fn1 and a criminal history involving at least one act of violence,*fn2 Penn State sought additional references from Wright. See Compl. at Ex. A; Defs. Statement of Undisputed Facts ("Defs. Facts") (Doc. No. 20) ¶¶ 3-4. The request was made pursuant to its published policy to ensure that Wright's known past behavior did not "endanger the health and safety of the University Community members." Defs' Facts at Ex. 1 ("Policy on Pre-Admission Review and Re-enrollment for Applicants with Known Behavior Problems"). Wright argues that he had submitted all of these materials when Penn State suspended him in June 2008 for allegedly having failed to submit all required materials.*fn3 Nevertheless, both parties agree that Wright was subsequently reinstated and allowed to continue his summer courses. See Compl. at 2-3; Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Facts ¶¶ 5-6. After completing the summer session, Wright enrolled in classes for the Fall 2008 and Spring 2009 semesters.

In August 2008, after submitting the required materials for pre-admission review, Wright was conditionally admitted to Penn State as a degree candidate. In light of his history, Wright was required, as a condition of his admission, to attend five free counseling sessions with a Penn State counselor during the Fall 2008 Semester while continuing his studies. After Wright refused to attend counseling sessions, Penn State cancelled his Spring 2009 classes and placed his admission on registration hold. See Defs. Statement of Undisputed Facts ¶¶ 16-17; Plfs. Responses to Defs. (Doc. No. 23) ¶ 5.

Before the end of the Fall 2008 semester and before Penn State cancelled his Spring 2009 classes, Wright filed this pro se action in October 2008. He seeks a $3.2 million judgment against the defendants for alleged violations of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. He does not request equitable relief.

In his pro se complaint, which is unclear,*fn4 Wright claims discrimination. The complaint references generally "racial discrimination." But, at oral argument, he talked only about his prior criminal record forming the basis for the alleged discrimination. He claims that he was treated unfairly by Steensland, who allegedly told him during their first meeting that he was not "worthy to be an Penn State Berks [sic] degree student"*fn5 and that he should apply to an "urban school." Compl. at 1. Wright alleges that these were "racial statements" and "abrasive terminology conveyed in a racial discrimination [sic] manner." Id. at 2.*fn6 Finally, in his pro se complaint, he contends that Speece is subject to vicarious liability for Steensland's actions. Id. at 5. His complaint attaches four letters from Steensland concerning Wright's application as a degree candidate student, five letters from third parties submitted to Penn State by Wright during the course of applying for degree candidate admission,*fn7 and the complaint report that Wright submitted to Penn State based on the same facts at issue in this case.

The defendants initially moved to dismiss Wright's complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). See Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss Plf.'s Compl. (Doc. No. 8). Oral argument was heard on March 4 and 11, 2009. During each of these hearings, Wright argued that requiring him to attend counseling constituted cruel and unusual punishment. He admitted that he refused to attend counseling as a prerequisite for his admission. See 3/11/09 Tr. at 43:23-44:4.

After notice to the parties, the motion to dismiss was converted to a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d).*fn8 See 3/11/09 Tr. at 44:6-18; Order, March 12, 2009 (Doc. No. 16). The defendants were permitted to submit additional briefing by March 26, 2009, and Wright was given until April 9, 2009, to respond. He was invited to submit any additional evidence by way of affidavits or otherwise.

The day following the second oral argument, Wright filed a two-page motion titled "Motion for Summary Judgment." See Doc. No. 17. Although this motion claims to rely on "supporting affidavits forwarded with claim," Wright actually refers only to the exhibits he submitted with his complaint, none of which are affidavits. See Doc. No. 21 (attaching the exhibits referenced in, but not attached to, Doc. No.17.) Wright's motion essentially asks for judgment on his complaint and does not raise any additional issues of fact or law.*fn9

Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). In examining their motion, we must view the facts in the light most favorable to Wright, as the nonmoving party, and draw all reasonable inferences ...

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