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Deegan v. Moore

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

March 30, 2017



          Elizabeth K. Dillon United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Jennifer Deegan, a former nursing student at Virginia Western Community College (VWCC), brings this First Amendment retaliation claim against VWCC administrators Melanie Moore, Carole Graham, and Lori Baker (collectively defendants), alleging that they retaliated against her for making statements critical of the nursing program. Defendants now move to dismiss, arguing that Deegan fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and that they are entitled to qualified immunity. (Dkt. Nos. 4, 6.) The motions were fully briefed and were argued before the court on September 30, 2016. For the reasons set forth below, the court will grant Moore's motion and deny Graham and Baker's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Deegan's Allegations

         The facts recited in this section and relied on below are based on the allegations of Deegan's complaint. (Dkt. No. 1.) As it must for purposes of defendants' motions to dismiss, the court accepts Deegan's allegations as true and construes them in the light most favorable to her. Coleman v. Md. Court of Appeals, 626 F.3d 187, 189 (4th Cir. 2010), aff'd, 566 U.S. 30 (2012).

         This case arises from Deegan's criticism of and resignation from VWCC's nursing program. Deegan enrolled in the program in fall 2013 and grew concerned about its quality the following spring when an unqualified instructor replaced a qualified instructor who had resigned. (Compl. ¶ 11.) At some point, apparently around spring 2014, Deegan discussed her concerns with some unnamed nursing program instructors who agreed that the program's quality of instruction was lacking. (Id.)

         Deegan's concerns grew when she returned for class in August 2014. (Id. ¶ 13.) Two more qualified instructors had resigned over the summer, and the program continued to decline. (Id. ¶¶ 12, 13.) Melanie Moore (the Assistant Dean of Nursing) and other instructors quizzed students on materials they had not learned the previous year and criticized the quality of the program. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 13.) However, despite Moore's criticism of the nursing program, she refused to discuss declining licensure scores with a student who tried to raise the issue during a class. (Id. ¶ 13.) Unnamed instructors also told students that the program would try to get rid of uncooperative students. (Id.)

         Around the end of August, Deegan voiced her frustrations to various members of the VWCC community. On August 27, 2014, she contacted VWCC's Board of Trustees by letter about her concerns, and told them that she would be willing to meet with VWCC's President Dr. Robert Sandel to discuss them. (Id. ¶ 14.) The following day, she complained about the pop quizzes and lack of instruction during a Nursing 238 class. (Id. ¶ 16.) Deegan alleges that her comments in that class were recorded and were not disruptive-apparently, they were made during a group discussion of the subject with many members of the class. (Id. ¶¶ 16, 20.) After class, Deegan met with defendant Graham, the Dean of Health Professions, to discuss her concerns further, and then scheduled a meeting with Sandel, Graham, Moore, and VWCC's Vice President Elizabeth Wilmer for September 3, 2014. (Id. ¶¶ 6, 18.)

         After Deegan's comments in the Nursing 238 class, defendants “caused or encouraged” the filing of a student misconduct report charging her with disruption and verbal abuse.[1] (Id. ¶ 20.) Dean Graham and defendant Lori Baker, the Dean of Student Services, told her about the charge in the September 3, 2014 meeting, which Sandel, Wilmer, and Moore did not attend. (Id. ¶ 19.) The next day, Deegan received a letter from Baker confirming that she had been charged with misconduct and informing her that there would be a hearing before the Student Misconduct Committee to address the charges. (Id. ¶ 20.)

         On September 9, 2014, Deegan filed a grievance outlining her problems with the nursing program. (Id. ¶ 22.) She claimed, among other things, that teachers were bullying nursing students and that student concerns were met with hostility, threats, and disciplinary action. (Id.) After a meeting with Wilmer on September 22, 2014, Deegan's grievance was determined to be unfounded. (Id. ¶ 23.)

         Deegan met with Baker about the misconduct charge on September 29, 2014. (Id. ¶ 24.) Baker did not meet with Deegan until Deegan requested the meeting directly, although Baker's investigation into the charge should have included a meeting, and Baker refused to listen to a recording of the Nursing 238 class that Deegan brought with her. (Id. ¶ 24.) At some point, apparently after that meeting but prior to her misconduct hearing, Deegan resigned from the nursing program. (Id. ¶ 26.) Despite her resignation, she still attended the hearing on October 15, 2014, and was cleared of the misconduct charges by the Student Misconduct Committee. (Id. ¶ 25.)

         Deegan filed this First Amendment retaliation claim against Moore, Graham, and Baker, alleging that her criticism of VWCC's nursing program was protected speech and that defendants retaliated against her by filing the student misconduct charge. Defendants move to dismiss, arguing that Deegan failed to state viable claims against them and that they are entitled to qualified immunity.

         B. Additional Documents

         As exhibits to their motion to dismiss, defendants included a copy of the September 4, 2014 letter informing Deegan of the charge against her, and a copy of the incident report on which defendants claim the misconduct charge was based. (Def.'s Br. Supp. Mot. Dismiss (Def.'s Br.) Ex. 1, Dkt. No. 5-1.) The second page of the incident report is a typed, unsigned paragraph apparently describing the professor's account of the August 28, 2014 Nursing 238 class. The paragraph states that following a quiz on that date, Deegan stood up and expressed her displeasure about the quiz's content and preparation time “in a loud and disrespectful manner” and that her conduct was “alarming and disruptive to the class as a whole.” (Id.)

         With her brief in opposition (Dkt. No. 9), Deegan submitted a copy of the grievance she filed after she was charged with misconduct (Pl.'s Br. Opp'n Ex. 1) and a copy of VWCC's student conduct policy. (Id. at Ex. 2.) Deegan relies on these documents for several points. First, she claims that the grievance shows that she discussed her concerns about the nursing program with Moore during summer 2014. Second, she claims that under the terms of the misconduct policy, she should have had a meeting with defendants Graham and Baker “prior to the imposition of the misconduct charge.” (Pl.'s Br. Opp'n 4.)


         A. Motion to Dismiss Standard

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the legal sufficiency of a plaintiff's complaint to determine whether the plaintiff has properly stated a claim. Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). To avoid dismissal, the “complaint must establish ‘facial plausibility' by pleading ‘factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'” Clatterbuck v. City of Charlottesville, 708 F.3d 549, 554 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). Basically, a plaintiff must “nudge[] [her] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).

         In determining whether a plaintiff has met this plausibility standard, the court must take as true all well-pleaded facts in the complaint and in any documents incorporated into or attached to the complaint. Sec'y of State for Defence v. Trimble Nav. Ltd., 484 F.3d 700, 705 (4th Cir. 2007). Further, it must “draw[] all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor, ” Edwards, 178 F.3d at 244, but it “need not accept legal conclusions couched as facts or ‘unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.'” Wag More Dogs, LLC v. Cozart, 680 F.3d 359, 365 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008)).

         B. The Court Will Not Consider ...

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