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Kaidanov v. Pennsylvania State Univ.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 23, 2014

PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIV. et al., Defendants.


GENE E.K. PRATTER, District Judge.

Fencing coach Emmanuil Kaidanov challenges the decision of Pennsylvania State University ("Penn State") to terminate his employment, bringing claims against Penn State and two of Penn State's employees under both federal and state law. Mr. Kaidanov maintains that in contravention of an employment contract with Penn State, he was terminated without good cause. Defendants now move to dismiss each count in Mr. Kaidanov's Complaint. The Court held oral argument on the motion on November 15, 2014 and will grant in part and deny in part Penn State's motion for the reasons that follow.


Emmanuil Kaidanov was Penn State's men's and women's fencing coach for 31 years, leading the teams to 12 national championships. Penn State hired Mr. Kaidanov in September of 1982, pursuant to a contract that was renewed annually. Mr. Kaidanov alleges that his contract was renewed most recently on July 1, 2013, and, although he does not explicitly state that the contract contained a term prohibiting termination without cause, he does allege that because of his contract he could not be terminated without good cause. During the relevant time period, Defendant David Joyner was Penn State's athletic director, and Defendant Julie Del Giorno was Penn State's "Athletics Integrity Officer."

In February 2013, a female member of the fencing team (hereinafter the "Student") was called to the PSU Police Department and accused of possession of drugs. Pursuant to a policy encouraging anonymous reporting of misconduct in the Athletics Department, Policy AD67, [1] a member of the Athletics Department staff (hereinafter the "Reporter") had reported to University police that she thought she saw the Student drop a "joint." In reality, the Student dropped a piece of white athletic tape and, accordingly, was cleared of any charges. When Mr. Kaidanov learned of the situation, he addressed the issue with the Student and her parents, and encouraged the Student to voluntarily submit to a drug test. The Student did so and passed.

Mr. Kaidanov alleges that he was required to monitor his team's compliance with the "Athletics Integrity Agreement" and NCAA regulations. Thus, he claims that it was his personal and non-delegable responsibility to investigate and make personal inquiries regarding the incident in question, as well as to personally report any suspected violations of University policy. Because of these obligations, he not only addressed the issue with the Student, but also spoke with the Reporter "and expressed his disappointment that the staff member had not informed him of what had happened." He did not express any intention to take further action against the Reporter, nor did he threaten or undertake adverse employment actions against her. He also personally did not have the power to take any adverse employment action with respect to the Reporter, and he did not know at the time that the report had been an anonymous one.

In July 2013, Ms. Del Giorno contacted Mr. Kaidanov to arrange a meeting, but refused to tell him beforehand the subject matter that would be discussed. At the meeting, Ms. Del Giorno asked Mr. Kaidanov about the facts and circumstances surrounding the February 2013 incidents, both as to the Student and the Reporter.[2] This was the first time that Mr. Kaidanov learned that the Reporter had made her report anonymously, pursuant to Policy AD67. According to the Complaint, at no time during this meeting did anyone raise the issue of discipline based on the incident.

Sometime after this meeting, Dr. Joyner asked Mr. Kaidanov to come to his office for a meeting on August 20, 2013. Dr. Joyner did not inform him what the meeting would be about prior to that date. The meeting was attended by Mr. Kaidanov, Dr. Joyner, and Ms. Del Giorno.[3] At the meeting, Dr. Joyner informed Mr. Kaidanov that he had "lost confidence" in him and accused him of retaliating against the Reporter, in violation of Policy AD67. He then terminated Mr. Kaidanov's employment. A letter from Dr. Joyner dated that same day lists a number of reasons for Mr. Kaidanov's dismissal. Mr. Kaidanov claims that all of the reasons were pretextual. Mr. Kaidanov also claims that he did not have proper notice of the charges against him or a meaningful opportunity to respond before he was actually terminated, despite the description of the meeting in Dr. Joyner's letter which states that Dr. Joyner presented Mr. Kaidanov with various facts regarding the Reporter incident and the University policies implicated and gave him a chance to respond to each issue raised. At some point, either at the July or August meeting, Mr. Kaidanov cited a disagreement with Policy AD67; however, he claims that he said he would follow the policy and had always followed it.[4]

A grievance hearing was held on September 27, 2013 before Dovizia Long, a manager of Employee Relations at Penn State. Mr. Kaidanov claims that although this meeting was ostensibly an opportunity for Ms. Long to hear evidence supporting his termination and Mr. Kaidanov's rebuttal to that evidence, it was merely a "rubber-stamp" approval of Dr. Joyner and Ms. Del Giorno's actions. The evidence presented by Dr. Joyner consisted solely of the reading of his August 20, 2013 letter. At the hearing, the parties disagreed about the interaction between Penn State's reporting policies and the NCAA requirements of coaches. The hearing resulted in an October 10, 2013 letter from Ms. Long adopting Dr. Joyner's decision. That letter states that Mr. Kaidanov was given an opportunity to (and did) present documentary evidence to support his side of the story, and that a university professor attended the hearing with him. Mr. Kaidanov, however, claims that he was precluded from presenting relevant rebuttal information at that time regarding statements of his "good name, character, integrity, and reputation." After his termination, the University publicized that he had been terminated for "personnel reasons."

On June 5, 2014, Mr. Kaidanov filed this Complaint, setting out seven claims. The first three claims all invoke 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. Count I charges the Individual Defendants with violating Mr. Kaidanov's rights to procedural due process by failing to provide adequate pre- and post-termination process. Count II charges Penn State with the same violations. Count III charges all Defendants with violating Mr. Kaidanov's liberty interest in his reputation (a "stigma-plus" claim). The remaining claims are state law claims: a claim for tortious interference with contract against the Individual Defendants (Count IV), a claim for wrongful termination against all Defendants (Count V), a claim for breach of contract against all Defendants (Count VI), and a claim for false light against all Defendants (Count VII). The Defendants now move to dismiss all of the claims against them.


A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of a complaint. Although Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), "in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, '" Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citation omitted) (alteration in original), the plaintiff must provide "more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do, " id.

To survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead "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). Specifically, "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. The question is not whether the claimant "will ultimately prevail... but whether his complaint [is] sufficient to cross the federal court's threshold." Skinner v. Switzer, 131 S.Ct. 1289, 1296 (2011) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, assessment of the sufficiency of a complaint is "a context-dependent exercise" because "[s]ome claims require more factual explication than others to state a plausible claim for relief." W. Penn Allegheny Health Sys., Inc. v. UPMC, 627 F.3d 85, 98 (3d Cir. 2010).

In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint, the Court adheres to certain well-recognized parameters. For one, the Court "must consider only those facts alleged in the complaint and accept all of the allegations as true." ALA, Inc. v. CCAIR, Inc., 29 F.3d 855, 859 (3d Cir. 1994); see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (stating that courts must "assum[e] that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)"); Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010) ("[A] court must consider only the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, as well as undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant's claims are based upon these documents."). Also, the Court must accept as true all reasonable inferences emanating from the allegations, and view those facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Rocks v. City of Philadelphia, 868 F.2d 644, 645 (3d Cir. 1989); see also Revell v. Port Auth., 598 F.3d 128, 134 (3d Cir. 2010). That admonition does not demand that the Court ignore or disregard reality. The Court "need not accept as true unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences, " Doug Grant, Inc. v. Greate Bay Casino Corp., 232 F.3d 173, 183-84 (3d Cir. 2000) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted), and "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678; see also Morse v. ...

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