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Alame v. Matthews

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

December 21, 2016

NOUHAD ALAME, et al., Plaintiffs,
DE'ANDREA MATTHEWS, et al., Defendants.


          MARK A. GOLDSMITH United States District Judge

         In this civil rights case, brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants violated their constitutional rights to procedural due process and equal protection when Plaintiffs were dismissed from a post-baccalaureate program offered through the Wayne State University School of Medicine. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss count one of the amended complaint, which concerns Plaintiffs' procedural due process claim only (Dkt. 11). The issues have been fully briefed. Because oral argument will not aid the decisional process, the motion will be decided based on the parties' briefing. See E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(f)(2). As discussed below, the Court grants the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs Nouhad Alame and Michael VanHall were students enrolled in a non-degree granting post-baccalaureate program at the Wayne State University School of Medicine during the 2015-2016 academic year. Am. Compl. ¶ 1 (Dkt. 9). This program is intended for first-generation college graduates who are interested in admission to the medical school. Id. ¶ 9; Defs. Br. at 2. Upon the successful completion of the one-year program, the students matriculate directly into the medical school the following academic year. Am. Compl. ¶ 15. Students participating in this program are required to sign a post-baccalaureate program agreement, which informs the students that, if they receive a grade of “D” or lower in any academic course, they will be dismissed from the program. Id. ¶¶ 22, 24. Both Alame and VanHall signed this agreement. Id. ¶ 25.

         During the winter 2016 term, Plaintiffs took a course entitled Gross Anatomy. Id. ¶ 28. Alame and VanHall received a 68.9% and 69.95% in the course, respectively. Id. ¶ 31. According to Plaintiffs, these percentage grades equated to “C” grades based on the instructor's syllabus. Id. ¶¶ 30, 31. On March 3, 2016, Defendant De'Andrea Matthews, the director of the program, met with Plaintiffs and informed them that, notwithstanding the instructor's syllabus, they had received “D” grades in the course and were being dismissed from the program. Id. ¶¶ 2, 32. Plaintiffs thereafter sought to appeal their dismissals. Id. ¶ 35.

         Plaintiffs first spoke with the course instructor, who indicated that he was not aware that a grade below 70% was considered a “D” grade by Wayne State, and believed that Plaintiffs should not have received a “D” in his course. Id. ¶ 36. Plaintiffs then sought to follow Wayne State's policies for appealing a grade, but claim that they encountered repeated obstacles along the way, which failed to give them “any meaningful opportunity to be heard.” Id. ¶ 37. For instance, Plaintiffs attempted to contact Defendant Herbert Smitherman, the medical school's interim vice dean of diversity and inclusion, and Defendant Richard Baker, the vice dean for medical education, but did not receive a response from either. Id. ¶¶ 3, 4, 38. Rather, the matter was referred back to Matthews. Id. ¶ 38.

         Plaintiffs claim that Matthews then held a “secret meeting” with other school administrators to discuss Plaintiffs' grades, of which the Plaintiffs had no knowledge. Id. ¶¶ 39, 42. After the meeting, Matthews informed Plaintiffs that the matter had been reviewed and that “it was decided that their grades in Gross Anatomy [were] indicative of poor academic performance, irrespective of the letter grade assigned, ” and that this constituted “just cause for dismissal from the Program.” Id. ¶ 43.

         Plaintiffs appealed this decision to Defendant Joseph Rankin, associate provost at Wayne State. Id. ¶¶ 5, 44. Rankin responded in a letter dated April 18, 2016, in which he stated that he was upholding Plaintiffs' dismissals from the program and noted that a grade between 60% and 69% is considered a “D” grade under Wayne State's “universal” grading scale. Id. ¶¶ 45-47.[1]

         Plaintiffs initiated this action on June 23, 2016, claiming that Defendants conduct violated their constitutional right to procedural due process. See generally id. ¶¶ 58-66. Plaintiffs also claim that Defendants treated them less favorably than similarly situated African-American students in the program based on Plaintiffs' race, which violated Plaintiffs' right to equal protection. See generally id. ¶¶ 67-73. Plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages and either admission to the medical school or reinstatement in the post-baccalaureate program. Id. at 15, ¶¶ A-B (prayer for relief).


         In evaluating a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “[c]ourts must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to plaintiff, accept all well-pled factual allegations as true, and determine whether the complaint states a plausible claim for relief.” Albrecht v. Treon, 617 F.3d 890, 893 (6th Cir. 2010). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must plead specific factual allegations, and not just legal conclusions, in support of each claim. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-679 (2009). A complaint will be dismissed unless it states a “plausible claim for relief.” Id. at 679.

         III. ANALYSIS

         To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate that a person acting under the color of state law deprived the plaintiff of a federal statutory or constitutional right. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). However, the doctrine of qualified immunity shields a government official from civil liability, unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct. Taylor v. Barkes, 135 S.Ct. 2042, 2044 (2015) (per curiam); accord Reichle v. Howards, 132 S.Ct. 2088, 2093 (2012). “A clearly established right is one that is sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (per curiam); see also City & Cnty. of San Francisco, Cal. v. Sheehan, 135 S.Ct. 1765, 1774 (2015) (“An officer cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the right's contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in his shoes would have understood that he was violating it.”).

         Although a case directly on point is not required for a constitutional right to be clearly established, the plaintiff must show “either controlling authority or a robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority . . . that could be said to have clearly established the unconstitutionality” of the official's conduct. Plumhoff v. Rickard, 134 S.Ct. 2012, 2023-2024 (2014); Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011) (“[E]xisting precedent must have placed the . . . constitutional question beyond debate.”); see also Durham v. Nu'Man, 97 F.3d 862, 866 (6th Cir. 1996) (“A right is not considered clearly established unless it has been authoritatively decided by the United States Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, or the highest court of the state in which the alleged constitutional violation occurred.”). Practically speaking, this prong of qualified immunity provides ...

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