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Rodriguez v. Widener University

United States District Court, Third Circuit

June 17, 2013



JOHN R. PADOVA, District Judge.

Miguel Rodriguez filed a Complaint on March 13, 2013, naming as defendants Widener University ("the University"), Widener professor David Coughlin, Widener Associate Provost and Dean of Students Denise Gifford, Widener's Director of Campus Safety Patrick Sullivan (collectively "the Widener Defendants"), the City of Chester, Pennsylvania, and Chester Police Officer Matthew Donohue. Plaintiff asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 sounding in a due process violation for termination of his employment at the University and his dismissal as a student (Counts I and II); a claim under § 1983 for violation of his equal protection rights (Count III); a claim under § 1983 for violation of his right to privacy (Count IV); a claim for violation of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701, et seq. (Count V); a claim for violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2511 and 2520 (Count VI); a claim for violation of the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2701, et seq. (Count VII); and a Pennsylvania state law claim for invasion of privacy (Count VIII). Presently before the Court is the Widener Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. For the following reasons, the Motion is granted in part and denied in part.


The Complaint alleges the following facts. Rodriguez, an honorably discharged Navy veteran, was enrolled under the G.I Bill in the University's Biology Pre-Med program earning above average grades. (Compl. ¶¶ 1, 8, 10, 11.) Defendant Coughlin was assigned to be his faculty advisor. (Id. ¶ 12.) He and Coughlin were "at odds as a result of Plaintiff's view on Creationism' and Coughlin's views of Evolution.'" (Id.) While he was enrolled as a student, Plaintiff was also employed by the University as an advisor and Operations Manager. (Id. ¶ 13.)

On March 16, 2011, Rodriguez was required to appear in the office of Dean Gifford. (Id. ¶ 14.) He alleges that Gifford, Sullivan, and the University obtained proprietary information from Rodriguez's medical providers in North Carolina without his authorization. (Id. ¶ 15.) Sullivan also obtained access to his Facebook account and printed images that he had posted. (Id. ¶ 16.) At the March 16 meeting, Rodriguez was interrogated by Officer Donohue, Sullivan, and Gifford regarding his emails and Facebook postings, without being advised of his Miranda rights. (Id. ¶ 17.) Sullivan informed Plaintiff that he was temporarily suspended due to the fact that he was perceived to be a threat to the community because he displayed images of weapons on his Facebook page. (Id. ¶¶ 19, 25.)

At the end of the meeting, Officer Donohue concluded that it was necessary for Plaintiff to be involuntarily evaluated regarding his mental health at Crozer Chester Medical Center. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 24.) After he was placed in a police car, Officer Donohue searched Rodriguez's backpack and found a knife and less than 30 grams of marijuana. (Id. ¶ 26.) Plaintiff was involuntarily transported to Crozer Chester Medical Center and committed there from March 17 to March 24, 2011, for testing and evaluation, after which he was cleared to return to school. (Id. ¶¶ 24, 27, 29.) Defendants obtained the results of that testing and evaluation without his authorization. (Id. ¶ 27.) As a result of the involuntary committal, Rodriguez was forced to miss an awards ceremony, classes, and an admissions interview at a medical school. (Id. ¶ 28.) After he was discharged and cleared to return to school, he was advised that he was suspended from the University due to the discovery of the knife and marijuana in his backpack. (Id. ¶ 30.) He was advised that, to be readmitted, he was required to be assessed by the University's Office of Disabilities Services. (Id.) During the time that he was involuntarily committed, Professor Coughlin made libelous statements to campus security to the effect that Rodriguez was restricted from campus, and made statements to the Chester Police Department that Plaintiff had threatened to kill him. (Id. ¶ 31.)


The Widener Defendants have moved to dismiss Rodriguez's claims for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). When considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), we "consider only the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, [and] matters of public record, as well as undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant's claims are based upon these documents." Mayer v. Belichick , 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc. , 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993)). We take the factual allegations of the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. DelRio-Mocci v. Connolly Props., Inc. , 672 F.3d 241, 245 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Warren Gen. Hosp. v. Amgen Inc. , 643 F.3d 77, 84 (3d Cir. 2011). Legal conclusions, however, receive no deference, and the court is "not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Papasan v. Allain , 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (cited with approval in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)).

A plaintiff's pleading obligation is to set forth "a short and plain statement of the claim, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), which gives the defendant "fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555 (alteration in original) (quoting Conley v. Gibson , 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). The complaint must contain "sufficient factual matter to show that the claim is facially plausible, ' thus enabling the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for [the] misconduct alleged.'" Warren Gen. Hosp. , 643 F.3d at 84 (quoting Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside , 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009)). "The plausibility standard is not akin to a probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly , 550 U.S. at 556). In the end, we will dismiss a complaint if the factual allegations in the complaint are not sufficient "to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'" West Run Student Hous. Assocs., LLC v. Huntington Nat'l Bank , 712 F.3d 165, 169 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555).


A. The Section 1983 and Section 1985 Claims

A valid claim brought pursuant to § 1983 requires a plaintiff to allege a "violation of a right secured by the Constitution and... show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law." West v. Atkins , 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). The "under color of state law" requirement is equivalent to "state action" under the Fourteenth Amendment. Mark v. Borough of Hatboro , 51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir. 1995)). "Action under color of state law requires that one liable under § 1983 have exercised power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.'" Harvey v. Plains Twp. Police Dep't , 635 F.3d 606, 609 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Abbott v. Latshaw , 164 F.3d 141, 146 (3d Cir. 1998)).

The Complaint alleges that the University is a "corporate educational entity" and that the other Widener Defendants are employees of the University. (Compl. ¶¶ 2-4.) There are three discrete tests to determine whether a private, non-state party engages in state action. Kach v. Hose , 589 F.3d 626, 646 (3d Cir. 2009). The first test determines whether the private entity exercises powers that are traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the state. Mark , 51 F.3d at 1142. The second test addresses whether the private entity has acted in concert or with the help of state officials. Id . The third inquiry involves situations in which "the State has so far insinuated itself into a position of interdependence with the acting party that it must be recognized as a joint participant in the challenged activity." Id . (citations omitted); see also Cruz v. Donnelly , 727 F.2d 79, 81 (3d Cir. 1984) (holding that a private party may be deemed a state actor when the private party has acted together with or has obtained aid from state officials, or when its conduct is otherwise chargeable to the state); Brentwood Acad. v. Tennessee Secondary Sch. Athletic Assoc. , 531 U.S. 288, 295 (2001) (holding that "state action may be found if, though only if, 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'" (quoting Jackson v. Metro. Edison Co. , 419 U.S. 345, 351 (1974))). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated that these inquiries are "fact-specific." Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan , 47 F.3d 628, 638 (3d Cir. 1995).

In cases concerning a private party's involvement with police, "in the absence of a conspiracy with the police to violate constitutional rights, a [private party's] summons of a police officer to deal with a possible disturbance, does not make it a state actor." Bailey v. Harleysville Nat'l Bank & Trust , 188 F.Appx. 66, 68 (3d Cir. 2006); see also Moldowan v. City of Warren , 578 F.3d 351, 399 (6th Cir. 2009) ("Providing information to the police, responding to questions about a crime, and offering witness testimony at a criminal trial does not expose a private individual to liability for actions taken under color of law.'"). However, the Third Circuit has held that a private party may be liable under § 1983 when there is a prearranged plan by which police officers substitute "the judgment of private parties for their own official authority." Cruz , 727 F.2d at 80.

The Widener Defendants argue that Rodriguez has failed to allege a plausible claim under § 1983 because the University is not a political subdivision of the state and its employees were not acting as representatives of a political subdivision of the state. (Defs.' Mem. at 4.) They contend that Rodriguez's conclusory allegation of concerted action, absent allegations of fact establishing a conspiracy with the police - such as the time, place and nature of the alleged agreement to act in concert - is insufficient to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. (Id . at 4-5.) Rodriguez responds that he has satisfied his pleading burden because the Complaint alleges that the Widener Defendants pre-arranged to have Officer Donohue present at Dean Gifford's office prior to his arrival on March 16, 2011. He adds that "[i]t remains to be seen why the uniformed officer was present. It is highly unlikely that a uniformed Chester Police officer is present for all meetings with students. The University's stated reason for ...

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