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Venegas v. Wright State University

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division

August 21, 2017

DIEGO VENEGAS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.

         JUDGE WALTER H. RICE DECISION AND ENTRY SUSTAINING MOTION TO DISMISS OF DEFENDANTS WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY AND CHRIS TAYLOR (DOC #5) AS TO CLAIMS ONE THROUGH FOUR FOR LACK OF SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION, SUSTAINING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS FOR FAILURE TO STATE A CLAIM UPON WHICH RELIEF CAN BE GRANTED (DOC. #5) AS TO CLAIM FIVE AND OVERRULING DEFENDANTS' MOTION AS TO CLAIM SIX, SUBJECT TO RENEWAL IF PLAINTIFFS CHOOSE TO FILE AN AMENDED COMPLAINT; MOTION FOR LEAVE TO FILE AMENDED COMPLAINT OF PLAINTIFFS DIEGO VENEGAS AND MARC SODINI (DOC #7) IS OVERRULED, AS PLAINTIFFS HAVE NOT SET FORTH CLAIMS THAT WOULD SURVIVE A MOTION TO DISMISS; PLAINTIFFS' CLAIMS TWO THROUGH FIVE ARE DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE, AND JUDGMENT SHALL ULTIMATELY ENTER IN FAVOR OF DEFENDANTS AND AGAINST PLAINTIFFS ON THOSE CLAIMS; PLAINTIFFS MAY FILE AN AMENDED COMPLAINT AS TO CLAIM ONE WITHIN TWENTY-ONE DAYS OF THIS ENTRY SUBJECT TO THE CONDITIONS SET FORTH HEREIN AND THE STRICTURES OF RULE 11; IF PLAINTIFFS FAIL TO FILE A VIABLE AMENDED CLAIM ONE THEN THE COURT WILL DISMISS CLAIM SIX WITHOUT PREJUDICE TO REFILING IN A STATE COURT OF COMPETENT JURISDICTION

          WALTER H. RICE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiffs Diego Venegas ("Venegas") and Marc Sodini ("Sodini") (collectively "Plaintiffs"), former members of the Wright State University ("WSU") Men's Varsity Tennis Team ("Team"), allege WSU and Chris Taylor ("Taylor"), in his official capacity as the Director of WSU's Office of Community Standards and Student Conduct (collectively "Defendants"), improperly removed them from the Team and terminated their enrollment at WSU. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution (claims brought under 42 U.S.C. §1983); violated their rights under Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et. seq. ("Title IX"); and breached their contracts with Plaintiffs. Doc. #1. Before the Court are Defendants' Motion to Dismiss under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), Doc. #5, and Plaintiffs' Motion for Leave to Amend the Complaint ("Motion for Leave"). Doc. #7. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss is SUSTAINED IN PART AND OVERRULED IN PART, and Plaintiffs' Motion for Leave is OVERRULED in its present form.

         I. RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         A. Facts related to Venegas

         Venegas, a Colombian national, was a WSU student and a member of the Team from 2014 through 2016. Doc. #1, ¶¶ 10-12, PAGEID #3. In January 2016, Venegas was informed that his teammate, Tyler Smith ("Smith"), had filed a formal complaint against him for violating the WSU Student Code of Conduct ("Code") by "poking" him in the rectum. Doc. #1, ¶¶ 16-17, PAGEID #3-4. In February 2016, a second teammate, Grant Esposito ("Esposito"), alleged that he, too, was poked by Venegas. Id., ¶ 18, PAGEID #4. During the investigation, Taylor "specifically and repeatedly discouraged" Venegas from obtaining counsel. Id., ¶ 19.

         On February 10, 2016, WSU's Gender-Based Harassment and Violence Panel ("GBHVP") conducted a series of hearings regarding alleged transgressions by Team members, including Venegas. Doc. #1, ¶¶ 20-21, PAGEID #4. Pursuant to Sections B7-3 and B2-1 of the Code, the GBHVP found Venegas responsible for deliberate touching of another's sexual parts without consent and hazing, and he was expelled from WSU. Id. ¶¶ 25-26, PAGEID #5.

         B. Facts related to Sodini

         Sodini was a WSU student and Team member from 2012 through 2016. Doc. #1, ¶¶ 29-30, PAGEID #6. In January 2016, Smith and Esposito filed a formal complaint against Sodini for the following alleged violations of the Code: (1) "Deliberate touching of another's sexual parts without consent;" (2) a "Bias related incident;" (3) "Verbal harassment;" and (4) "Hazing or similar act." Doc. #1, ¶¶ 36, 38, PAGEID #7, 8.

         On February 10, 2016, Sodini also had a hearing before the GBHVP, at which he was found responsible for all four Code violations. Subsequently, Sodini was removed from the Team and expelled from WSU. Doc. #1, ¶ 49, PAGEID #10.

         II. CLAIMS IN LAWSUIT

         A. Claim One-Fourteenth Amendment Due Process

         Plaintiffs claim that they "have a protected liberty interest in pursuing their education at WSU, " Doc. #1, ¶ 56, PAGEID #11, and that "Venegas, as an international student, has a protected property interest in his residency status through his student visa, housing, and scholarship!.]" Id., PAGEID #57. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants removed them from the Team and expelled them from WSU without notice and opportunities to be heard that were commensurate with their liberty and property interests. Id., ¶¶ 58, 80 PAGEID #12, 14. Plaintiffs allege that these above-described actions violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Id. ¶ 80, PAGEID #14.

         B. Claim Two-First Amendment

         Plaintiffs allege that Defendants prohibited them from speaking with fellow students, including other Team members also under investigation or with current and former employees of WSU, prior to their hearings. Doc. #1, ¶ 83, PAGEID #15. Also, Plaintiffs claim that the Defendants restricted their rights to "freely speak with legal counsel or advisor(s) of their choosing, whose advise [sic] was critical to Plaintiffs' ability to defend" themselves. Id., ¶ 84. Plaintiffs allege that these actions violated their free speech and association rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Id., 85.

         C. Claim Three-Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection-Venegas

         Venegas alleges that Defendants imposed higher penalties against him in comparison to other accused Team members due to his ethnicity, Hispanic, his country of origin, Colombia, and his status as a non-permanent resident. Doc. #1, ¶¶ 92-93, PAGEID #17. Venegas alleges that this disparate treatment violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Id., ¶ 94.

         D. Claim Four-Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection-Venegas and Sodini

         Plaintiffs allege that Defendants failed to enforce the Code against all parties involved in the alleged incident. Doc. #1, ¶ 100, PAGEID #19. Specifically, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants failed to investigate their claims that Smith and Esposito themselves engaged in sexual assault and racial harassment against them, and that Defendants failed to "investigate, prosecute, or discipline" either Smith or Esposito for these acts. Id., ¶ 99-100, PAGEID #18-19. Plaintiffs allege that this violated their equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Id., ¶ 101, PAGEID #19.

         E. Claim Five-Title IX

         Plaintiffs allege that Defendants' failure to investigate their accusations that they were victims of sexual misconduct constituted "impermissible [sex-based] bias" in violation of Title IX, which "bars the imposition of university discipline where [sex] is a motivating factor in the decision to discipline." Doc. #1, ¶¶ 107, 110, PAGEID #20.

         F. Claim Six-Breach of Contract

         Plaintiffs allege that the Code constituted a contract between Plaintiffs and the Defendants, arising out of each Plaintiff's enrollment at WSU, Doc. #1, ¶¶ 114, 142, PAGEID #21, 25, and that Defendants' failure to comply with the rules and obligations contained in and arising out of the Code constituted breaches of those contracts. Id., ¶ 145, PAGEID #25. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants breached the Code when they: (1) failed to provide them with the same opportunity as was afforded Smith and Esposito to present their own allegations of misconduct; (2) discouraged them from consulting with counsel regarding their alleged offenses; (3) failed to address their allegations against the complainants for misconduct; (4) prohibited them from attending other hearings or from cross-examining Smith and Esposito; and (5) improperly allowed the GBHVP to hear and adjudicate their charges for hazing and inappropriate touching. Doc. #1, ¶¶ 118, 125, 127, 139-140, PAGEID #22-25.

         G. Motion for Leave

         In their memorandum in opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, Plaintiffs request that this Court grant them leave to amend their 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims to include allegations against Defendant Chris Taylor in both his official and individual capacities, and a prayer for declaratory and injunctive relief. Doc. #7, PAGEID #70 (citing Doc. #7-1). In addition, Plaintiffs seek leave to include additional allegations to all of their claims. Id., PAGEID #72-73.

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         "The objection that a federal court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction may be raised by a party, or by a court on its own initiative, at any stage in the litigation." Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 506, 126 S.Ct. 1235, 163 L.Ed.2d 1097 (2006) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). "[T]he party invoking federal jurisdiction has the burden to prove that [subject matter] jurisdiction [exists]." Global Tech., Inc. v. Yubei (XlnXiang) Power Steering Sys. Co., Ltd., 807 F.3d 806, 810 (6th Cir. 2015). If the Court determines that it lacks jurisdiction over certain claims, then it must dismiss those claims. See Ammex, Inc. v. Cox, 351 F.3d 697, 702 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting Riggs v. Island Creek Coal Co., 542 F.2d 339, 343 (6th Cir. 1976)) ("parties cannot waive the requirement of subject matter jurisdiction.").

         Defendants have raised a "facial attack on the subject matter jurisdiction alleged in the complaint[, which] merely questions the sufficiency of the pleading. In reviewing such a facial attack, a trial court takes the allegations in the complaint as true, which is a similar safeguard employed under [Rule] 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss." Ohio Nat'l Life Ins. Co. v. United States, 922 F.2d 320, 325 (6th Cir. 1990) (emphasis removed).

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) provides that a complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the [plaintiff] is entitled to relief." The complaint must provide the defendant with "fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957)).

         Rule 12(b)(6) allows a party to move for dismissal of a complaint on the basis that it "fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." The moving party "has the burden of showing that the opposing party has failed to adequately state a claim for relief." DirecTV, Inc. v. Treesh, 487 F.3d 471, 476 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing Carver v. Bunch, 946 F.2d 451, 454-55 (6th Cir. 1991)). The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss "is to allow a defendant to test whether, as a matter of law, the plaintiff is entitled to legal relief even if everything alleged in the complaint is true." Mayer v. Mylod, 988 F.2d 635, 638 (6th Cir. 1993). In ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court must "construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept its [well- pleaded] allegations as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff." Handy-Clay v. City of Memphis, 695 F.3d 531, 538 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting frees/7, 487 F.3d at 476).

         Nevertheless, to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the complaint must contain "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. Unless the facts alleged show that the plaintiff's claim crosses "the line from conceivable to plausible, [the] complaint must be dismissed." Id. Although this standard does not require "detailed factual allegations, " it does require more than "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Id. at 555. "Rule 8 . . . does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). Legal conclusions "must be supported by well-pleaded factual allegations . . . [that] plausibly give rise to an entitlement of relief." Id. at 679. "Although for the purposes of this motion to dismiss we must take all the factual allegations in the complaint as true, we are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Papasan v. Attain, 478 U.S. 265, 286, 106 S.Ct. 2932, 92 L.Ed.2d 209 (1986).

         C. Leave to Amend Standard

         Rule 15(a)(2) directs courts to give leave to amend freely "when justice so requires." Nonetheless, a court need not grant leave to amend if doing so would be futile. "A proposed amendment is futile if the amendment could not withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss." Riverview Health Inst. LLC v. Med. Mut. of Ohio, 601 F.3d 505, 512 (6th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).

         IV. ...


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