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Christopher J. Reichert v. Elizabethtown College

August 4, 2011

CHRISTOPHER J. REICHERT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ELIZABETHTOWN COLLEGE, ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff Christopher Reichert alleges that Defendant Elizabethtown College ("the College") and several of its faculty members violated his civil rights as a disabled person, breached a contract with him, and violated federal and state laws by accessing his e-mails without permission. Currently before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss Counts IV-XI of Reichert's Second Amended Complaint. For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

Reichert suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a seizure disorder, and other "learning disabilities in written expression and reading fluency." (Second Am. Compl. ¶ 31.) Reichert informed the College of his disabilities when he applied by including an essay on his disabilities with his application and informing the College's Center for Student Success, which "oversees implementation of disabilities protection." (Id. ¶ 32.) Reichert enrolled in the College in the fall of 2007 with a dual major in elementary education and special education. (Id. ¶ 4.) During Reichert's sophomore and junior years, his experience at the College soured. He was denied priority scheduling to meet his unique needs, and was required to take a number of difficult courses. (Id. ¶ 17.) Reichert had a heated exchange with one of one of his professors over an attempt to drop one of those classes. (Id.) The professor reported this conversation to the chairman of the education department, defendant Dr. Carroll Tyminski, who "took it upon herself to order a safety patrol to 'protect' that professor for the following week." (Id.) Dr. Tyminski also called an emergency meeting of the education department to discuss other complaints made against Reichert, and ultimately determined that he represented a threat to the College and should be expelled. (Id.) However, after Reichert and his parents protested, defendant Dr. Susan Traverso, the College's provost, overruled Dr. Tyminski's decision. (Id.)

Despite Dr. Traverso's decision, she and other faculty members devised a multi-part plan to force Reichert from the College. (Id.) This included deliberately not providing Reichert further accommodations, spreading rumors about him, and advising faculty members "to make a record of all of [Reichert's] inappropriate behaviors." (Id.) Dr. Tyminski also hired a computer investigation service to monitor Reichert's e-mail account. (Id.) In addition, Dr. Tyminski and other faculty members held a meeting on November 11, 2008 to discuss removing Reichert. (Id. ¶ 60.) Defendants Dean Marie Calenda, Mimi Staulters, Rachel Finley-Bowman, Dr. Traverso, and Susan Pitcher were at the meeting. (Id.)

On November 23, 2009, Dean Calenda sent Reichert an e-mail indicating she was concerned about his well-being, and that "unnamed campus community members had observed noticeable extremes in his behavior." (Id. ¶ 22.) After meeting with Reichert the following day, Dean Calenda scheduled a disciplinary hearing for December 4, 2009. (Id. ¶ 25.) Unfortunately, Reichert suffered a seizure on December 4 and was unable to attend. (Id. ¶ 27.) Within a week of the seizure, the College informed Reichert that he would have to reschedule his disciplinary hearing and attend two other hearings before being allowed to return. Reichert was told he would have to face an academic integrity hearing after being accused of plagiarism, and another hearing regarding his professional competency to become a teacher. (Id. ¶ 28.) After Reichert suffered a mental breakdown, the College allowed him to take a medical leave of absence, but insisted that he face the three hearings before returning. (Id. ¶¶ 29-30.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure mandate dismissal of complaints which fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The Court accepts "as true all of the allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom," viewing them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008); Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). The defendant bears the burden of establishing that the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Gould Elecs., Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir. 2000).

This Court applies a two-part analysis to determine whether claims survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. See Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). First, the Court must separate the factual and legal elements of the claim, accepting well-pleaded facts as true, but disregarding legal conclusions. Id. Second, the Court must determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show a plausible claim for relief. Id. at 211 (citing Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234-35). If the well-pleaded facts "do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct," the complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim. Jones v. ABN Amro Mortg. Grp., 606 F.3d 119, 123 (3d Cir. 2010). Courts look to the complaint and attached exhibits in ruling on a motion to dismiss. Sands v. McCormick, 502 F.3d 263, 268 (3d Cir. 2008); Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Section 1983 and Direct Constitutional Claims

In Count IV, Reichert brings a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the College, a private institution, alleging violations of his rights to privacy and due process under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Section 1983 provides that a plaintiff may bring a lawsuit against a state actor for a violation of a right, privilege or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. See Kach v. Hose, 589 F.3d 626, 646 (3d Cir. 2009) (noting that the Third Circuit treats § 1983's "under color of state law" requirement identically to the Fourteenth Amendment's "state action" requirement.) Reichert alleges that the College's activities constituted state action because "as a result of state and federal funding received and being specifically delegated the power to determine who can become a State Certified teacher within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there exists a symbiotic relationship between it and the state." (Second Am. Compl. ¶ 49.)

"State action" for § 1983 purposes requires that "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." Kach, 589 F.3d at 646 (quoting Leshko v. Servis, 423 F.3d 337, 339 (3d Cir. 2005)). The Third Circuit has outlined three tests to determine whether state action exists:

(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 state has so far insinuated itself into a position of interdependence with the acting ...


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