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Byerly v. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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

December 6, 2019

MATTHEW J. BYERLY Plaintiff,
v.
VIRGINIA POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE AND STATE UNIVERSITY, ET. AL., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          Robert S. Ballou United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff, Matthew J. Byerly (“Byerly”), filed a Second Amended Complaint (Dkt. 37) after I dismissed his Amended Complaint. Byerly asserts a single cause of action under 28 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that academic discipline imposed by the defendants violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Defendants Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (“Virginia Tech”)[2], Timothy Sands (“Sands”), and James Orr, Sr. (“Orr”), move to dismiss Byerly's Second Amended Complaint. Dkt. 42. Byerly again fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and thus, I grant the motion to dismiss. Byerly has had previous opportunity to amend, and since further amendment would be futile, I dismiss the Second Amended Complaint with prejudice.[3]

         I. BACKGROUND

         Byerly originally filed this action as John Doe, proceeding against Virginia Tech only. I denied Byerly's motion to proceed under a pseudonym and directed him to file an amended complaint disclosing his actual name. Dkt. 17. Thereafter, Byerly filed the Amended Complaint, which Virginia Tech moved to dismiss. I granted the motion, but allowed Byerly leave to amend to address the factual and legal deficiencies in his Amended Complaint. Dkt. 36.

         Byerly then filed the Second Amended Complaint, again naming Virginia Tech, but also adding as defendants Sands, the president of Virginia Tech, and Orr, the Assistant Provost for Academic Strategy and Policy, both employees of Virginia Tech. Second Am. Compl. ¶¶ 6-7, Dkt. 37. The Second Amended Complaint seeks the same relief as the Amended Complaint and asserts primarily the same factual allegations, with the only new substantive allegation being that, after he was adjudged guilty of cheating on the final exam in one of his classes, Virginia Tech required Byerly to enroll in an Academic Integrity Education Program costing $150. Byerly asserts that this punishment caused him to suffer a “deprivation of a property interest in [these] funds . . . .” Id. ¶¶ 38, 39, 46.[4]

         As I must, I accept as true the factual allegations in the Second Amended Complaint. 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. Id. ¶¶ 13-14. During the final examination 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. ¶¶ 16-17.

         Byerly appeared before an honor panel in February 2017 and at the hearing he denied sharing answers during the exam or cheating in any way. Id. ¶¶ 26, 28. 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. ¶¶ 29-30. The student who allegedly witnessed Byerly cheating and notified Dr. Ray did not appear before the honor panel and was never identified. Id. ¶¶ 31, 34. The panel found against Byerly and his appeal to Dr. Orr was denied. Id. ¶¶ 32-33. Byerly received an “F*” in the course, which he asserts will be “devastating for his plans to enter the field of medicine.” Id. ¶ 40. He also forfeited the credits he purchased for the course and was required to enroll in an Academic Integrity Education Program, which cost $150. Id. ¶¶ 36-39. Byerly filed the Second Amended Complaint in April 2019 and indicated at that time that he was a college senior at Virginia Tech, with plans to attend medical school. Byerly contends that disclosing this academic violation as required on the standardized medical school application could limit the number of schools that consider him for admission. Id. ¶¶ 11- 12, 43.

         Byerly asserts that he has a constitutionally protected property interest in his continued education at Virginia Tech, the credits he purchased for his epidemiology course, and the $150 he paid for the Academic Integrity Education Program. Id. ¶ 45-46. Byerly also asserts he has a constitutionally protected liberty interest in “his good name, reputation and integrity.” Id. ¶ 47. Byerly alleges that the due process provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment apply to Virginia Tech's disciplinary process, and that defendants “failed to provide adequate due process when they collectively neglected to identify [his] accuser or provide him with an opportunity to confront and question his accuser.” Id. ¶¶ 48-50. Byerly asks for declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as attorney's fees and costs.

         Defendants Sands and Orr move to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, asserting that Byerly has failed to allege a constitutionally protected liberty or property interest. Dkt. 43. Byerly opposes the motion to dismiss, arguing he “has a property interest in his education.” In dismissing the Amended Complaint, I previously found that Byerly failed to allege a proper source for his claim of entitlement to credits for the epidemiology course, or a basis for a property right involving a grade. Nevertheless, I granted leave to amend to allege a source for his claim of a property right. However, in the Second Amended Complaint, the only material new fact Byerly asserts is that he was “subject to other financial penalties” including being required to enroll in an Academic Integrity Education Program costing $150. Consequently, Byerly argues he suffered a “deprivation of property interest in the funds he had to pay for the Academic Integrity Education Program . . .” Id. ¶¶ 38-39, 46. This new allegation does not create a legitimate source for a property interest protected by the Constitution.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A. 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”).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Motion to Dismiss ...


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