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Byerly v. Virginia Polytechnic Institute And State University

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

March 26, 2019



          Robert S. Ballou, United States Magistrate Judge

         In this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, defendant Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (“Virginia Tech”) moves to dismiss the plaintiff Matthew J. Byerly's (“Byerly”) amended complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.[1] Dkt. No. 20. Byerly opposes the motion to dismiss and also asks for leave to amend. I grant Virginia Tech's motion to dismiss both for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, dismiss the amended complaint without prejudice, and allow Byerly leave to file a second amended complaint.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In the fall of 2016, Byerly was a student at Virginia Tech and enrolled in an epidemiology course taught by Dr. Pamela Ray, a part-time instructor. Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 10, 11, Dkt. No. 19. During the final examination in the course in December 2016, Dr. Ray approached Byerly, collected his answer sheet and stated, “A student behind you said it appeared you were sharing answers, so I will have to take these. You will be contacted by honor court in the next few days.” Id. at ¶¶ 14, 15.

         Byerly appeared before an honor panel in February 2017. Id. at ¶ 23. At the hearing, Byerly denied sharing answers during the exam or cheating in any way. Id. at ¶ 25. Dr. Ray also spoke before the honor panel, explaining that she collected Byerly's exam upon receiving a complaint of cheating from another student. Id. at ¶ 27. The student who had notified Dr. Ray of Byerly's alleged cheating did not appear before the honor panel and was not identified. Id. at ¶ 28. The panel found against Byerly, and his appeal to the Dean of Student Affairs was denied. Id. at ¶¶ 29-30. Byerly received an “F*” in the course, which he asserts will be “devastating for his plans to enter the field of medicine.” Id. at ¶¶ 32, 34. At the time of the filing of the Amended Complaint in April 2018, Byerly was a college senior at Virginia Tech and indicated he hoped to attend medical school. Id. at ¶¶ 8, 9.

         Byerly's Amended Complaint alleges a single cause of action against Virginia Tech for violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[2] Byerly asserts that he has a constitutionally protected property interest in his continued education at Virginia Tech and the credits he purchased for his epidemiology course, that the due process provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment apply to Virginia Tech's disciplinary process, and that Virginia Tech “failed to provide adequate due process when it neglected to identify [his] accuser or provide him with an opportunity to confront and question his accuser.” Id. at ¶¶ 38-42. Byerly asks for declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as attorney's fees and costs. Id. at p. 7.

         Virginia Tech moves to dismiss the amended complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Dkt. No. 20. Byerly opposes the motion to dismiss, and asks for leave to amend to name an officer of Virginia Tech as the defendant. Mem. in Opp. to D's Mot. to Dismiss at 13, Dkt. No. 29.


         A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1)

         Subject matter jurisdiction is a threshold issue and absent a proper basis for subject matter jurisdiction, a case must be dismissed. See Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 96 (1998); Haley v. Virginia Dep't of Health, No. 4:12-CV-00016, 2012 WL 5494306, at *2 (W.D. Va. Nov. 13, 2012) (“Federal district courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.”). The plaintiff, who asserts jurisdiction, bears the burden of proving subject matter jurisdiction in response to a Rule 12(b)(1) motion. See Williams v. United States, 50 F.3d 299, 304 (4th Cir. 1995). In deciding whether jurisdiction exists the court may “consider evidence outside the pleadings without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment.” Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999) (quoting Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R. Co. v. U.S., 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         B. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)

         The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss is to test the sufficiency of the plaintiff's complaint. See Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “require[ ] only ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.' ” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (omission in original) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). Legal conclusions in the guise of factual allegations, however, are not entitled to a presumption of truth. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (requiring a complaint to contain facts sufficient “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face”).

         C. Effect of Extrinsic Documents

         Virginia Tech attached three exhibits to its motion to dismiss, which it asks the court to consider in ruling on the motion to dismiss. D's Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss at 5, Dkt. No. 21. These exhibits include the transcript from the hearing before the honor council (Ex. A.), Byerly's official transcript (Ex. B.), and the official notice of the hearing (Ex. C). At oral argument, Byerly objected to the court considering the exhibits, and objected to the authenticity of the hearing transcript.

         “If, on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) . . ., matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56, ” and “[a]ll parties must be given a reasonable opportunity to present all the material that is pertinent to the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d); see Laughlin v. Metro. Wash. Airports Auth., 149 F.3d 253, 260-61 (4th Cir. 1998); Gay v. Wall, 761 F.2d 175, 177 (4th Cir. 1985). However, “a court may consider official public records, documents central to plaintiff's claim, and documents sufficiently referred to in the complaint [without converting a Rule 12(b)(6) motion into one for summary judgment] so long as the authenticity of these documents is not disputed.” Witthohn v. Fed. Ins. Co., 164 Fed. App'x 395, 396-97 (4th Cir. 2006) (citing Alt. Energy, Inc. v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 267 F.3d 30, 33 (1st Cir. 2001); Phillips v. LCI Int'l, Inc., 190 F.3d 609, 618 (4th Cir. 1999). “[I]n the event of conflict between the bare allegations of the complaint and any attached exhibit . . ., the exhibit prevails.” Fayetteville Inv'rs v. Commercial Builders, Inc., 936 F.2d 1462, 1465 (4th Cir. 1991). Also, “[w]hen matters outside the pleadings are presented in a response to a 12(b)(6) motion, a district court has discretion to exclude the additional material.” Lawson v. Miles, No. 1:11cv949, 2012 WL 3242349, at *4 (E.D. Va. Aug. 6, 2012) (citations omitted).

         I will not consider the exhibits in ruling on the motion to dismiss as I find that these documents are not official public records, and are neither integral to nor sufficiently referred to in the amended complaint. See M.B. by & through Brown v. McGee, No. 3:16CV334, 2017 WL 1364214, at *1-2 (E.D. Va. Mar. 24, 2017) (court “exercise[d] its discretion” and declined to consider certain exhibits because the plaintiff did not refer to them in his complaint and they were not central to his claim).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Motion to Dismiss ...

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