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Ward v. Members of the Board of Control of Eastern Michigan University

April 5, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. George Caram Steeh


Defendants Eastern Michigan University ("EMU") Dean of the College of Education Dr. Polite, Professors of Counseling and EducationDr. Ametrano, Dr. Francis, Dr. Marx, Dr. Callaway, and Dr. Dugger, and Formal Review Committee student member defendant Paula Stanifer, move for judgment on the pleadings or for summary judgment on the basis of quasi-judicial immunity as to former EMU Counseling Graduate Student Julea Wards' claims for damages arising from Ward's dismissal from EMU's Counseling Graduate Program allegedly due to her religious beliefs on the subject of homosexuality, and in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Oral argument would not significantly aid the decisional process. Pursuant to E.D. Mich. Local R. 7.1(e)(2), it is ORDERED that the motion be resolved without oral argument.

I. Background

A more detailed background of this lawsuit is set forth in the court's March 24, 2010 Order denying the defendants' motion to dismiss or for summary judgment due to qualified immunity and the Eleventh Amendment. During a Counseling Program Practicum Course for students-in-training, Ward's third client sought counseling regarding a homosexual relationship. After reading the client's file, but before meeting the client, Ward asked her supervisor, Professor Callaway, whether the client should be referred to another student because Ward could not affirm the client's homosexual behavior. Professor Callaway directed that the client be referred to another student counselor, then informed Ward that she would not be assigned any more clients, and that Callaway would be requesting an informal disciplinary review before herself and Ward's Advisor, defendant Dugger, as to whether Ward had violated certain policies set forth in "The Counseling Student Handbook." After a February 3, 2009 informal review before Callaway and Dugger, Ward chose to pursue a formal review hearing. Ward was informed in a February 19, 2009 letter that the formal review was "disciplinary in nature," and that she may be disciplined for "a violation of . . . the [American Counseling Association ("ACA")] Code of Ethics and or when a student exhibits a pattern of recurring behavior which may include . . . [u]nethical, threatening or unprofessional conduct" and "[f]ailure to tolerate different points of view[.]" Complaint, Ex. 2. Ward's March 10, 2009 Formal Review Committee ("FRC") consisted of Professors Ametrano, Francis, and Marx, and student Stanifer. Professors Callaway and Dugger testified at the formal review. Following the formal review, the FRC issued a March 12, 2009 unanimous decision that "clear and convincing evidence" had been presented that Ward "violated the ACA Code of Ethics including, 'Counselors . . . avoid imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling goals' (A.4.b) and 'Counselors do not condone or engage in discrimination based on age, culture . . . . sexual orientation . . .' (C.5)." Complaint, Ex. 5. Ward was informed that she had ten days to file a written appeal of the FRC's decision to Dean Polite, who could accept, reject, or modify the decision. Id. Ward appealed the FRC's decision to Dean Polite in a March 20, 2010 letter, arguing that she had complied with the ACA Code of Ethics. Complaint, Ex. 6. Dean Polite affirmed the FRC's decision on March 26, 2009. Complaint, Ex. 9.

Professors Ametrano, Francis, and Marx, and student Stanifer, argue they are entitled to quasi-judicial immunity against any award of damages as members of the FRC, a quasi-judicial body. Dean Polite argues he is entitled to quasi-judicial immunity in his appellate role of reviewing the FRC's decision. Professors Callaway and Dugger argue they are entitled to quasi-judicial immunity as witnesses at the quasi-judicial FRC hearing.

II. Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings or for Summary Judgment

A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is reviewed under the same standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). Sensations, Inc. v. City of Grand Rapids, 526 F.3d, 291, 295-96 (6th Cir. 2008). In determining whether to dismiss, the court must assess whether the plaintiffs' factual allegations present plausible claims. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 564, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1970 (2007). The complaint's "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true." Ass'n of Cleveland Fire Fighters v. City of Cleveland, 502 F.3d 545, 548 (6th Cir. 2007) (quoting Bell Atlantic, 127 S.Ct. at 1965).

A court is authorized to grant summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." See Redding v. St. Reward, 241 F.3d 530, 532 (6th Cir. 2001). The standard for determining whether summary judgment is appropriate is "'whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'" Amway Distributors Benefits Ass'n v. Northfield Ins. Co., 323 F.3d 386, 390 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986)). The evidence and all reasonable inferences are construed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Redding, 241 F.3d at 532 (6th Cir. 2001). If the movant establishes by use of the material specified in Rule 56(c) that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the opposing party must come forward with "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue" of material fact. First Nat'l Bank v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 270 (1968); see also McLean v. 988011 Ontario, Ltd., 224 F.3d 797, 800 (6th Cir. 2000).

III. Quasi-Judicial Immunity

The Supreme Court in Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308 (1975) held "in the specific context of school discipline . . . a school board member is not [absolutely] immune from liability for damages under § 1983 if he knew or reasonably should have known that the action he took within his sphere of official responsibility would violate the constitutional rights of the student affected, or if he took the action with the malicious intention to cause a deprivation of constitutional rights or other injury to the student." Id. at 322. The Court reasoned that "absolute immunity would not sufficiently increase the ability of school officials to exercise their discretion in a forthright manner to warrant the absence of a remedy for students subjected to intentional or otherwise inexcusable deprivations." Id. at 320.

Three years later, the Supreme Court extended absolute quasi-judicial immunity to federal hearing examiners in the Executive Branch because the examiner's judgments had the "functional comparability" of judgments issued by judges in the Judicial Branch. Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 512 (1978). The Court stressed that quasi-judicial immunity was dependent upon "the special nature of their responsibilities," and not upon their "particular location within the Government[.]" Id. at 511.

[T]he safeguards built into the judicial process tend to reduce the need for private damages actions as a means of controlling unconstitutional conduct.

The insulation of the judge from political influence, the importance of precedence in resolving controversies, the adversary nature of the process, and the correctability of error on appeal are just a few of the many checks on malicious actions by judges. Advocates are restrained not only by their professional obligations, but by the knowledge that their assertions will be contested by their adversaries in open court. Jurors are carefully screened to remove all possibility of bias. Witnesses are, of course, subject to the rigors of cross-examination and the penalty of perjury. Because these features of the judicial process tend to enhance the reliability of information and the impartiality of the decision process, there is a less pressing need to correct constitutional error.

Id. at 512. The Butz court found "that adjudication within a federal administrative agency shares enough of the characteristics of the judicial process that those who participate in such adjudication should also be immune from damages," noting that the federal Administrative Procedure Act ("APA") provided many of the safeguards available in the judicial process. Id. at 512-513. The Court also noted that, prior to the adoption of the APA, "there was considerable concern that persons hearing administrative cases at the trial level could not exercise independent judgment because they were required to perform prosecutorial and investigative functions as well as their judicial work, and because they were subordinate to executive officials within the agency[.]" Id. at 513-14 (internal citations omitted). On concluding that ...

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