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Satell v. Temple University

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 25, 2017

STEPHEN SATELL
v.
TEMPLE UNIVERSITY

          MEMORANDUM

          KEARNEY, J.

         A university reducing a grade for a doctoral student based on plagiarism moves to dismiss the student's pro se complaint alleging breach of contract and possible due process violations. The student cannot cite a contract other than the student handbook which Pennsylvania has not recognized as a contract. The student also has not plead a due process claim. Liberally construing his claim as also raising race-based discrimination, we deny the university's request to dismiss a claim under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

         I. Alleged Facts

         Student Stephen Satell pro se sues Temple University alleging it subjected him to disparate treatment causing him to receive a reduced grade and harm his reputation as a doctoral student in the University's Department of Afrocology and African American Studies.[1] Mr. Satell alleges the University agreed to provide education services for $500 a credit.[2] Mr. Satell also alleges the University promised to be "fair and accord [him] due process" for charges of academic misconduct and to keep his grades and academic status confidential.[3]

         In May 2016, Professor Aaron Smith gave Mr. Satell an 'A' in his Independent Study course.[4] On May 16, 2016, Dr. Asante, Chair of the University's Department of Afrocology and African American Studies emailed Mr. Satell informing him the University reduced his Independent Study grade to a 'C because Mr. Satell used other authors' words without proper attribution.[5]

         The University never informed him of the plagiarism allegation, never showed him the plagiarized documents and did not afford him an opportunity to respond to the plagiarism allegations.[6] Mr. Satell alleges the University's conduct breached its contractual obligation to be "fair and accord due process."[7] Mr. Satell also alleges the University breached the contract by disclosing his grades to Larry Robin.[8] Mr. Satell never describes Mr. Robin's role or dissemination of this information.

         Mr. Satell alleges the University hindered his academic process, undermined his work, and deliberately misrepresented his actions "due to [his] race (Caucasian) and all being disparate treatment toward [him] - the only Caucasian student [in] the Department."[9]

         Mr. Satell alleges the lowered grade harmed his reputation and financially damaged him due to lost tuition payments and the expense to correct his reputation.[10] He alleges he paid "approximately $50, 000 and expended a considerable amount over and above that for expenses" to the University and "demands judgment against [the University] in an amount in excess of $50, 000."[11]

         On June 1, 2017, Mr. Satell pro se sued the University in the Court of Common Pleas for Philadelphia County for breach of contract.[12] The University construed Mr. Satell's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of due process and removed to this Court.[13]

II. Analysis

         The University now moves to dismiss Mr. Satell's complaint for failing to state a claim. We review Mr. Satell's/?ro se complaint originally filed in state court. "[W]e tend to be flexible when applying procedural rules to pro se litigants, especially when interpreting their pleadings .... [t]his means that we are willing to apply the relevant legal principle even when the complaint has failed to name it."[14] We construe Mr. Satell's pro se complaint to be a suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for depriving him of due process. We also construe Mr. Satell's assertions of discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While we hold pro se pleadings "to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, " they still must, however, "allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim."[15] As presently before us, Mr. Satell does not plead claims for breach of contract, deprivation of due process but, with liberal deference, states a claim under Title VI.

         A. Mr. Satell fails to state a claim for breach of contract.

         Mr. Satell alleges he contracted with the University according to terms in the University's Department of Psychology Graduate Handbook, and it breached those terms.[16] Mr. Satell also alleges he "was not given any other document that was part of the Contract nor was any such document made accessible to [him] in any form."[17] We construe Mr. Satell's allegations of breach as referring to terms in the Handbook.

         Mr. Satell fails to plead the University breached a contract because he does not allege facts to support the existence of a contract. "To sustain a claim for breach of contract, a plaintiff must prove: 1) the existence of a contract and its terms; 2) a breach of the duty imposed by the contract; and 3) damages that resulted."[18] In Johnson v. Temple U.-of Cmmw. System of Higher Educ, the Honorable Richard B. Surrick held "the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has declined to construe the student handbook of a public university as a contract between the public university and the student, " and held the University's student handbook is not a contract.[19]

         Mr. Satell alleges he contracted with the University under the terms of the Department of Psychology Graduate Handbook, and the allegations of breach refer to terms in the Handbook. Because Pennsylvania does not recognize the University's student handbook as a contract, Mr. Satell does not allege the existence of a contract and we must dismiss this claim.

         B. Mr. Satell fails to plead the University deprived him of due process.

         Mr. Satell alleges the University deprived him of fairness and due process when it reduced his 'A' grade to a 'C without notice and a chance to respond to the allegations. "In order to state a claim for failure to provide due process, a plaintiff must have taken advantage of the processes that are available to him or her, unless those processes are unavailable or patently inadequate."[20] Our court of appeals instructs, "[a] state cannot be held to have violated due process requirements when it has made procedural protection available and the plaintiff has simply refused to avail himself of them."[21] Mr. Satell fails to meet these initial requirements. He does not allege using a procedure remedy or a procedure remedy is unavailable or inadequate. Because he does not meet the initial procedural requirements, Mr. Satell fails to plead the University deprived him of due process.

         C. Even if Mr. Satell meets the procedural requirement, he does not plead the University deprived him of due process.

         "To state a claim under § 1983 for deprivation of procedural due process rights, [Mr. Satell] must allege that (1) he was deprived of an individual interest that is encompassed within the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of 'life, liberty, or property, ' and (2) the procedures available to him did not provide 'due process of law.'"[22] We construe Mr. Satell's complaint to allege the University deprived him of a liberty interest in reputation based on harming his reputation and depriving him of a property interest based on allegedly depriving him of paid services.

         1. Mr. Satell fails to plead the University violated his liberty interest in reputation.

         Mr. Satell does not state a due process claim for depravation of a liberty interest in his reputation because he does not allege stigmatizing statements in public. Under the "stigma-plus" test, "[i]n order to support a due process claim for deprivation of a liberty interest in reputation, the plaintiff must show (1) a stigma to his or her reputation plus (2) a deprivation of an additional right or interest."[23] To satisfy the 'stigma' prong of the test, "it must be alleged that the purportedly stigmatizing statement(s) (1) were made publicly, and (2) were false."[24] Mr. Satell "must plead that the allegedly stigmatizing information was "published" or otherwise disseminated by [Temple] to the public."[25] A plaintiffs single factual allegation his co-worker made an allegedly stigmatizing comment about the plaintiff is "not alleged to have been made publically."[26]

         Mr. Satell alleges his professor "deliberately misrepresented [his] actions to the department chair" and the department chair disclosed Mr. Satell's grades, plagiarism charges, and disciplinary actions to Larry Robin.[27] While Mr. Satell alleges his professor gave false statements, he does not allege either his professor or the department chair made the statements publicly.[28] Mr. Satell does not plead the identity of Larry Robin or his relationship to parties and a single disclosure to another person, without additional facts, is not publishing or disseminating the allegedly stigmatizing comment to the public. Because Mr. Satell does not provide ...


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