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Simms v. Pennsylvania State University-Altoona

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 19, 2018

GRACE G. SIMMS, Plaintiff,
v.
PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY-ALTOONA, DR. L. JAY BURLINGAME, and DR. ROBERT L. MATCHOCK, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KIM R. GIBSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         Pending before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint, In Part, filed by Defendant Pennsylvania State University, Altoona ("Perm State Altoona") (ECF No. 8).[1] The Motion has been fully briefed (see ECF Nos. 9, 12) and is ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated below, the Court will grant Perm State Altoona's motion.

         II. Jurisdiction

         The Court has subject matter jurisdiction over Simms' claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Venue is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b) because a substantial portion of the events giving rise to the claims occurred in the Western District of Pennsylvania.

         III. Background

         A. Factual Background[2]

         Simms is a student at Perm State, Altoona. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 8.) Simms is an African American female. (Id. at ¶ 12.) Starting in March 2016, Sarah Ismail, a fellow Perm State Altoona student, began a cyberbullying campaign targeted at Simms. (Id. at 13.) Specifically, Ismail made threatening messages and posts directed at Simms. (Id.)

         The evening of March 29, 2016, Ismail banged on Simms' door and recorded a "Snapchat story." (Id. at ¶ 14.) For approximately ten minutes, Ismail harassed Simms and bullied her through social media. (Id. at ¶ 15.) Ismail's harassment and cyberbullying humiliated Simms and caused her to experience negative thoughts about herself. (Id.) This incident was so disturbing that Simms' neighbors came by to check on her wellbeing. (Id.) It also caused Simms to contact her parents, who advised her to notify the police if Ismail ever harassed her again. (Id. at ¶ 16.)

         Later that evening, Simms went to study in the library. (Id. at ¶ 17.) When she arrived, a fellow student informed her that Ismail was also in the library. (Id.) Simms approached Ismail and stated, "Sarah I would appreciate if you would please delete the videos of me from your Snapchat account and if you have an issue with me I would respectfully try to resolve the issue [sic]." (Id. at ¶ 18.) Ismail, who appeared to be intoxicated, responded by yelling and swearing at Simms. (Id.)

         Ismail's outburst caused Erica Marbury, another student, to try to calm Ismail down. (Id. at ¶ 19.) Ismail exclaimed, "What the fuck do you have to do with this?" (Id.) Ismail then spit on and attacked Marbury. (Id.) Simms then intervened "to prevent them from fighting." (Id. at ¶ 20.)

         After the altercation ended, Marbury called the police and reported Ismail's attack on her (Id.) Simms informed the police about Ismail's conduct leading up to the incident in the library. (Id.) The police said they would document Simms' complaint. (Id.)

         A few days later, Simms received notification that she would face disciplinary and criminal charges. (Id. at ¶ 21.) Perm State Altoona investigated the incident pursuant to the Code of Conduct and Student Conduct Procedures. (Id. at ¶ 22.) During the investigation, Simms and Marbury told the police that Simms did not act as the aggressor, that Ismail provoked the incident when she spat on Marbury, and that Ismail had harassed Simms prior to the library incident. (Id.)

         On April 7, 2017, Perm State Altoona police charged Simms with three criminal counts: "simple assault" (a grade-two misdemeanor), "conspiracy-disorderly conduct" (a grade-three misdemeanor), and "harassment" (a summary offense). (Id. at ¶ 25.) These charges subjected Simms to possible imprisonment. (Id.)

         Simultaneously, the Penn State Altoona Office of Student Conduct charged Simms with two "major level violations" of the Student Conduct Policy: "harming or attempting to harm self of [sic] another" and "harassment-other." (Id. at ¶ 26.)

         The Office of Student Conduct notified Simms that she was required to attend a University Conduct Board hearing on May 19, 2016. (Id. at ¶ 27.) The notice informed Simms that she had (1) "the right to be informed in writing of all changes at least five business days" before the hearing and (2) the right to waive this five-day notice provision; (3) "the right to question witnesses" who participate at the hearing in person or by telephone; (4) "the right to review available evidence and documentation" before the hearing; (5) "the right to appeal the hearing decision"; and (6) the right to receive a hearing report after the hearing, "including findings and sanctions." (Id.)

         The hearing took place as scheduled. (Id. at ¶ 28.) The Conduct Board presiding over the hearing consisted of the "the Chancellor and Dean of the campus, two faculty advisors and a student advisor." (Id.) Every member of the Conduct Board is a white Caucasian. (Id.)

         From the beginning of the hearing, the Board had "already made a predetermined decision to suspend" Simmons because she was African American. (Id. at ¶ 29.) The Conduct Board treated Simms in a "disrespectful and dismissive manner, " which was demonstrated by the members' body language and how they questioned Simms and her witnesses. (Id. at ¶ 30.)

         In accordance with the University Code of Conduct and Student Policies, Simms was allowed to utilize the assistance of an attorney when preparing for the Conduct Board hearing but her attorney was not permitted to "actively participate in the hearing itself." (Id. at ¶ 31.) Because of the ongoing criminal investigation, Simms "faced a troubling decision"; testify at the Conduct Board hearing without the benefit of counsel and risk jeopardizing her criminal case or remain silent and allow the Conduct Board to hear uncontroverted evidence against her. (Id. at ¶ 33.)

         Ultimately, Simms chose to testify before the Conduct Board. (Id. at ¶ 34.) The Conduct Board uses the preponderance of the evidence standard when adjudicating alleged violations of the Student Code of Conduct. (Id. at ¶ 36.) According to Simms, the "overwhelming evidence" presented established that Simms was innocent and "no evidence controverted" Simms' testimony that she never touched Ismail during the incident in the library. (Id. at ¶¶ 37, 40.) However, the Conduct Board unanimously found that Simms was responsible for the charges against her. (Id. at ¶ 37.) As punishment, the Conduct Board suspended Simms through the 2017 Spring Semester, ordered Simms to reimburse Ismail's "out of pocket" expenses, and required Simms to complete counseling prior to rematriculating. (Id. at ¶ 38.)

         On July 12, 2016, Simms' criminal charges were dropped. (Id. at ¶ 43.)

         B. Procedural Background

         Simms filed her five-count Complaint before this Court on October 26, 2017. (ECF No. 1.) After the Defendants filed their Motion to Dismiss, Simms stipulated to dismiss all claims against Burlingame and Matchock (ECF No. 12 at 6), her 42 U.S.C. § 1981 claim (Count IV) (id. at 9), and her breach of contract claim (Count V) (id.).[3]

         Accordingly, the following claims remain against Perm State Altoona: procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment (Count I); substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment (Count II); and unlawful discrimination -race/color, under Title VI (Count III).[4]

         Perm State Altoona filed its Motion to Dismiss on February 1, 2018. (ECF No. 8.) Perm State Altoona moves to dismiss Count I (procedural due process), Count II (substantive due process), and Count III to the extent it asserts a Title VII claim.[5] (See id.)

         IV. Legal Standard A. Motion to Dismiss

         A complaint may be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 786 (3d Cir. 2016). But detailed pleading is not generally required. Id. The Rules demand only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief" to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).

         Under the pleading regime established by Twombly and Iqbal, a court reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint must take three steps.[6] First, the court must "tak[e] note of the elements [the] plaintiff must plead to state a claim." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 675 (2009). Second, the court should identify allegations that, "because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Id. at 679; see also Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc.,662 F.3d 212, 224 (3d Cir. 2011) ("Mere restatements of the elements of a claim are not entitled to the assumption of truth.") (citation omitted). Finally, "[w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, [the] court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. "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." Id.; see ...


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