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Obotetukudo v. Clarion University

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 6, 2014

CLARION UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.


JOY FLOWERS CONTI, Chief District Judge.

I. Introduction

This matter is before the court upon a motion to dismiss (ECF No. 23) filed on behalf of Clarion University of Pennsylvania ("Clarion University") and each of the following individual defendants: Dr. Joseph P. Grunenwald, Dr. Karen M. Whitney, Dr. Stanton W. Green, Dr. Valentine U. James, Dr. Ron Nowaczyk, Dr. Stephen A. Johnson, Dr. Rachelle C. Prioleau, Barry L. McCauliff, Dr. Susan M. Hilton, Dr. Myrna F. Kuehn, Dr. Jocelind E. Gant, and Timothy P. Fogarty (collectively the "individual defendants" and together with Clarion University the "defendants"). This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part.

II. Factual Background

As plaintiff Dr. Solomon Williams Obotetukudo ("Dr. Obotetukudo" or "plaintiff") is proceeding pro se, the factual allegations in his complaint are to be liberally construed.[1] Erickson v. Pardus , 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Clarion University, the primary defendant in this action, is one of the fourteen academic universities comprising the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. (ECF No. 4 ¶ 5.) From 1994 through 2011, Clarion University employed Dr. Dr. Obotetukudo as an associate professor. ( Id. ¶ 2.) In 1999 Dr. Obotetukudo earned tenure at Clarion University. (Id.) Each of the individual defendants was a university administrator at some point during Dr. Obotetukudo's employment at Clarion University. ( Id. ¶¶ 7-22).

Throughout his employment at Clarion University, Dr. Obotetukudo, a naturalized United States citizen born in Nigeria, engaged in various activities designed to encourage the university to hire and retain minority faculty members. For example, from 1997 through 1999, Dr. Obotetukudo hosted an "All-Minority Scholars Conference." ( Id. ¶ 48.) In March 2001, Dr. Obotetukudo organized a meeting of Clarion University's academic deans to highlight options the university could consider to increase the diversity of the tenured staff. (Id.) Dr. Obotetukudo contends that Clarion University and several of the individual defendants viewed these activities as "rabble rousing" and conspired to punish him by requiring him to submit to "Interim Performance Evaluations" each year from 2001 to 2011. ( Id. ¶¶ 49-50, 52.) These interim evaluations routinely produced "negative and poor reviews" of his work performance. ( Id. ¶¶ 53-54.) Dr. Obotetukudo contends that these negative performance reviews did not reflect his actual performance; rather, they were the product of defendants' concerted effort to halt his professional advancement and damage his academic reputation in response to his social advocacy. ( Id. ¶¶ 54-55.)

In addition to the negative performance reviews, Dr. Obotetukudo contends that Clarion University and the individual defendants engaged in a host of other activities designed to retaliate against him and undermine his standing with the university.[2] These activities include the following:

• Defendants intentionally embedded disruptive students in Dr. Obotetukudo's classes and offered them academic incentives to engage in distracting and hostile behavior in class for the purpose of disrupting Dr. Obotetukudo's lesson plans and classroom management. ( Id. ¶¶ 63-64.)
• Defendants orchestrated a break-in of Dr. Obotetukudo's office and directed someone to steal his grade book in order to intimidate him and prevent him from calculating grades for his students. ( Id. ¶ 67.)
• Defendants denied Dr. Obotetukudo sabbatical leave that he believes he should have been granted. ( Id. ¶¶ 69, 120-22.)
• Defendants repeatedly denied Dr. Obotetukudo a promotion from assistant professor to full-time professor. ( Id. ¶¶ 108-09.)
• Defendants embedded Muslim and Christian students in Dr. Obotetukudo's classes in order to "gauge [his] religiousness." ( Id. ¶ 105.) Additionally, Dr. Prioleau, a Jehovah's Witness, repeatedly invited Dr. Obotetukudo to attend religious services and resorted to "intimidations and harassment" when he declined. ( Id. ¶¶ 102-03.)
• Defendants embedded Muslim students in Dr. Obotetukudo's classes to "gauge [his] patriotism, and potentials or proclivities toward violence and terrorism." ( Id. ¶ 104.)

In December 2011, Clarion University terminated Dr. Obotetukudo's employment in the wake of an allegation of impropriety by a female student in one of his classes. ( Id. ¶¶ 29, 92.) His termination letter, signed by Dr. Whitney, the university president, stated as follows:

I conclude your actions toward [the student] were inappropriate and demonstrated a failure to follow University policy regarding interactions with students and staff. Specifically I found that both your written and verbal communications to [the student] created a hostile and threatening academic environment and interfered with the student's academic performance. Either of the foregoing alone is sufficient to warrant termination.

(Id.) Shortly thereafter, Dr. Obotetukudo filed a grievance wherein he alleged that defendants had failed to establish just cause for his termination as required by the university's Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA"). ( Id. ¶¶ 30-32.) The grievance was ultimately pursued to arbitration and denied following a hearing. (ECF No. 23, Ex. A.)

III. Procedural History

Dr. Obotetukudo commenced the instant action on May 6, 2013 by filing a fourteen-count pro se complaint challenging the circumstances of his employment and termination as a tenured assistant professor at Clarion University. (ECF No. 4.) The heart of the complaint centers on Dr. Obotetukudo's contention that defendants retaliated against and harassed him on the basis of his race, gender, age and religion in violation of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq ., Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 ("Title IX"), 20 U.S.C. § 1681, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq . See Count Two ("Retaliation"); Count Three ("Hostile Work Environment"); Count Six ("Sex Discrimination"); Count Seven ("Age Discrimination"); Count Eight ("Religious Discrimination"); and Count Twelve ("Racial Discrimination"). Additionally, Dr. Obotetukudo raises several constitutional due process claims based upon alleged violations of Clarion University's CBA. See Count One ("Wrongful Termination"), Count Four ("Violation of Due Process"), Count Five ("Abuse of Process"), and Count Eleven ("Breach of Provisions in Collective Bargaining Agreement"). His complaint also includes several inchoate claims that appear to lack any legal basis and are largely redundant. See Count Nine ("Violation of Constitutional Rights"); Count Ten ("Conspiracy to Violate Federal Civil Rights"); and Count Thirteen ("Conflicts of Interest and Premeditated Acts"). Finally, he asserts a state law claim for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. See Count Fourteen.

Defendants filed their motion to dismiss on September 27, 2013. (ECF No. 23.) Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition to that motion on November 6, 2013.[3] (ECF No. 29.) The matter is now fully briefed and ripe for review.

IV. Standard of Review

A motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Kost v. Kozakiewicz , 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993). In deciding a motion to dismiss, the court is not opining on whether the plaintiff will be likely to prevail on the merits; rather, when considering a motion to dismiss, the court accepts as true all well-pled factual allegations in the complaint and views them in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. U.S. Express Lines Ltd. v. Higgins , 281 F.3d 383, 388 (3d Cir. 2002). While a complaint does not need detailed factual allegations to survive a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) ("Rule 12(b)(6)") motion to dismiss, a complaint must provide more than labels and conclusions. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id . (citing Papasan v. Allain , 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level" and "sufficient to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." Id . "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." Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly , 550 U.S. at 556).

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.... Where a complaint pleads facts that are "merely consistent with" a defendant's liability, it "stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'"

(Id.) (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 556) (internal citations omitted).

Two working principles underlie Twombly. Id . First, with respect to mere conclusory statements, a court need not accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id . (citing Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555.) Second, to survive a motion to dismiss, a claim must state a plausible claim for relief. Id. at 679. "Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will... be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id . (citing Iqbal v. Hasty , 490 F.3d 143, 157-58 (2d Cir. 2007)). "But where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not show[n]- that the pleader is ...

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