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Becker v. City University of Seattle

July 8, 2010

ROBERT BECKER PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY UNIVERSITY OF SEATTLE, ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anita B. Brody, J.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Robert Becker ("Becker"), brings this suit against defendants, City University of Seattle ("City University"), one of its professors, Diane Beaudry, and several of its administrative officials*fn1 asserting violations of his civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Becker alleges that City University placed him in an independent study program in retaliation for Becker's criticism of the University and, in particular, Professor Beaudry and one of her courses. In addition, Becker asserts a Monell claim against City University and its officials, in which he argues that the University developed and maintained policies that infringed upon his constitutional rights. Currently before me are City University's Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim and Becker's response.

II. JURISDICTION AND LEGAL STANDARD

Becker's claims are brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, therefore this Court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. According to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), a court must grant a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff fails "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." "'[A] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter... to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. 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.'" Gelman v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 583 F.3d 187, 190 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009)).

III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND*fn2

From August 2005 to February 5, 2009, Becker was enrolled in online learning courses offered by City University, a private institution providing higher education. On January 12, 2009, Becker enrolled in "Human Nutrition," an online course taught by Defendant Diane Beaudry. Professor Beaudry distributed all assignments for the course via an online discussion board. Students in the class posted their responses to her assignments on the discussion board where Beaudry and other students in the class could view and comment on them. One particular assignment asked students to discuss the effect of City University generally, and Beaudry's class specifically, on their post-graduation plans. In response, Becker posted that he planned to "run... without ever looking back" and to "get out of City U ASAP" after he graduated. Becker also submitted a post describing "Human Nutrition" as a "flub" or "fluff" course.

Beaudry replied to Becker's post, informing him that she was offended by his posts and viewed them as disrespectful. She told Becker that he was going to receive a poor grade in the course and that she was going to bring him before the school's disciplinary committee. Becker apologized and requested a fresh start. Beaudry refused to accept his apology; after she threatened again to take him before the disciplinary committee, Becker filed a formal complaint against Beaudry with Defendant Judy Hinrichs, Dean of the School of Education at City University. On January 17, 2009, Becker and Beaudry reached some understanding and Becker withdrew his complaint. Following this exchange, Beaudry raised Becker's grade on at least one assignment. Despite this apparent reconciliation, on February 5, 2009, Defendant Melissa Mecham, Vice President of Admissions at City University, notified Becker that Beaudry had lodged a formal complaint against him on January 20, 2009. Becker was informed that he would be removed from the online version of the course and transferred into an independent studies program. He was also told to avoid contact with Professor Beaudry. Becker then refiled his complaint against Beaudry and added a complaint against Mecham. City University rejected Becker's grievances. Becker then initiated this suit on November 30, 2009.

IV. DISCUSSION

City University bases its motion to dismiss on the contention that Becker has failed to state a claim for which relief may be granted because he has admitted that City University is a private institution; neither § 1983 nor Monell claims may be brought against private entities unless they are acting under the color of state law. See Leshko v. Servis, 423 F.3d 337, 339 (3d Cir. 2005) ("[T]o state a claim of liability under § 1983, [a plaintiff] must allege that she was deprived of a federal constitutional or statutory right by a state actor."); and Natale v. Camden County Corr. Facility, 318 F.3d 575, 581-84 (3d Cir. 2003) (noting that the Monell doctrine may apply to private corporations but only if they are performing a municipal function, i.e., acting under the color of state law). Becker argues that a private actor may be subject to § 1983 and Monell liability if it adopts a public function or imbues itself with the color of state authority.*fn3

Despite Becker's best efforts to shoehorn a private actor, in this case City University, into the role of a state actor, his allegations are devoid of sufficient factual content to demonstrate that he can state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.

The Third Circuit treats § 1983's "under color of law" provision identically to the Fourteenth Amendment's "state action" requirement. See Kach v. Hose, 589 F.3d 626, 646 (3d Cir. 2009). A private actor's behavior constitutes state action only where there is "'such a close nexus between the State and the challenged action that seemingly private behavior may be fairly treated as that of the State itself.'" Id. (quoting Leshko, 423 F.3d at 339). To determine whether this nexus exists, the Third Circuit employs three broad tests:

(1) whether the private entity has exercised powers that are traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the state;

(2) whether the private party has acted with the help of or in concert with state officials; and

(3) whether the [s]tate has so far insinuated itself into a position of interdependence with the acting party that it must be recognized as a joint ...


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