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Beaney v. University of Maine System

United States District Court, D. Maine

February 28, 2017

JEFFREY BEANEY, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF MAINE SYSTEM, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS

          JON D. LEVY U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Jeffrey Beaney filed suit in the Maine Superior Court against the Defendants-the University of Maine System, James Page (the University System's Chancellor), and David Flanagan (formerly the President of the University of Southern Maine). ECF No. 1-9. Beaney was previously employed as a hockey coach and lecturer at the University of Southern Maine, and his Complaint arises out of events leading to the termination of his employment in January 2015. Beaney asserts claims for deprivation of due process under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 (2016), defamation, intentional misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Id. at 5-9. The Defendants removed the suit to federal court, ECF No. 1, and now move for judgment on the pleadings on the § 1983 and defamation claims, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), [1] ECF No. 7.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The facts as set forth in the Complaint, [2] which are largely denied by the Defendants, are as follows. Beaney was employed by the University for approximately thirty years, from 1985 until January 2, 2015. From 2004 until his employment ended in 2015, Beaney worked as a full-time hockey coach and lecturer. In November 2014, the University received an anonymous letter containing accusations of inappropriate behavior by the hockey team's coaching staff, in violation of the school's sexual harassment policies. University officials allegedly told Beaney that an independent investigation had revealed or was about to reveal that he was personally responsible for the conduct alleged in the letter. Beaney denies engaging in or allowing any inappropriate behavior.

         Agents of the University allegedly threatened to terminate Beaney's employment for cause on the basis of the allegations if he did not retire. Beaney was told that his termination for cause would result in the loss of his health, retirement, and other benefits, including a tuition waiver for his son. On December 29, 2014, President Flanagan allegedly declared that Beaney's employment would be terminated immediately unless he retired instead. Beaney further alleges that University agents falsely represented the nature of the benefits he would receive if he agreed to retire. Beaney agreed to retire, effective January 2, 2015. After he retired, he did not receive the benefits he was promised, and his son's tuition waiver was revoked. An independent investigation later determined that there was no basis for any of the accusations purportedly contained in the anonymous letter.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Legal Standard

         Motions under Rule 12(c) are treated nearly the same as motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), with the “modest difference” that Rule 12(c) motions implicate the pleadings as a whole. See Aponte-Torres v. Univ. of P.R., 445 F.3d 50, 54-55 (1st Cir. 2006). Thus, I must view the facts in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, and draw all inferences in his favor. Id. at 54. I am not tasked with resolving factual disputes at this stage; I may enter judgment on the pleadings “only if the uncontested and properly considered facts conclusively establish the movant's entitlement to a favorable judgment.” Id.

         In order to survive a Rule 12(c) motion, as with a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain sufficient factual allegations to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Bovin Belskis v. DT Developers Inc., 2016 WL 5395833, at *10 (D. Me. Sept. 27, 2016); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         B. Section 1983 Claim

         Defendants contend that they are entitled to judgment on Count One of the Complaint, which alleges deprivation of due process in violation of 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. ECF No. 7 at 5-12. The Defendants assert five[3] separate arguments in support of this contention: (1) the University has sovereign immunity from § 1983 liability; (2) Beaney's suit is precluded by his failure to avail himself of internal grievance procedures; (3) Beaney has not sufficiently alleged personal liability on the part of Defendants Flanagan and Page; (4) Beaney had no constitutionally-protected property interest in his continued employment; and (5) Flanagan and Page are entitled to qualified immunity.

         1. The University's Sovereign Immunity

         Defendants assert that the University of Maine System is immune from suit under § 1983 because it is an arm of the state. ECF No. 7 at 5-6. Beaney argues that the University waived its immunity by removing the case to federal court, and asserts that there is not enough information in the record to determine whether the University qualifies as an arm of the state for purposes of § 1983. ECF No. 11 at 4.

         Removing a suit from state to federal court does not result in a waiver of sovereign immunity if the same immunity is available to the removing party in state court. See Bergemann v. RI Dep't of Envtl. Mgmt., 665 F.3d 336, 342 (1st Cir. 2011). If, however, a party is not immune from suit in state court, then removing the case to federal court may constitute a waiver of immunity. See Lapides v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. Sys. of Ga., 535 U.S. 613, 620 (2002). In Lapides, the Court held that the University of Georgia had waived its immunity by removing a case to federal court, where the state had explicitly waived immunity in state court. Id. at 616-17, 624.

         The Court reasoned that “seriously unfair results” would result from a rule that permitted a state to invoke federal jurisdiction through removal, but then claim that the federal court lacked jurisdiction over the suit due to Eleventh Amendment immunity. See Id. at 619.

         The First Circuit discussed Lapides at length in its decision in Bergemann, 665 F.3d at 340-41. In that decision, the First Circuit held that Rhode Island had not waived its immunity by removing the case to federal court because the state would also have been immune in the state court where the suit was originally filed. Id. at 342. Noting that the waiver by conduct doctrine is animated by a “desire to avoid unfairness, ” the court reasoned that there was “nothing unfair” about allowing Rhode Island to assert its immunity after removal because that immunity was equally robust in both state and federal court. Id. at 341-42. By contrast, allowing a party to assert immunity in federal court after removing a case from a state court where it did not have immunity would create the sort of unfair result discussed in both Lapides and Bergemann. Accordingly, the question of whether the University can assert sovereign immunity in this case, after having removed it to federal court, turns on whether the University would have been immune from suit in the Maine state court where the case was originally filed.[4]

         The Maine Law Court has developed a two-part test for determining whether a state agency is entitled to immunity under § 1983. See Campaign for Sensible Transp. v. Me. Tpk. Auth., 658 A.2d 213, 216-17 (Me. 1995). Courts must determine: “(1) [I]s the agency an alter ego of the state or is it relatively autonomous, and (2) would funds to pay a judgment against the agency come from the state treasury.” Id. (footnote omitted). The pleadings in this case do not provide enough information to determine whether the University qualifies for immunity under this test. The pleadings alone offer no information regarding the governance of the University that might shed light on whether it is an autonomous organization, or the sources of funding that would be used to pay a judgment against it. Thus, it is premature to determine whether the University would have been entitled to immunity in state court, and, consequently, whether it waived immunity by removing the case to federal court. Accordingly, at this early juncture, the University has not shown that it is entitled to a judgment in its favor based on sovereign immunity.

         2. Internal ...


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