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Tanyi v. Appalachian State University

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division

July 22, 2015

LANSTON TANYI, Plaintiff,
v.
APPALACHIAN STATE UNIVERSITY, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA, CINDY A. WALLACE, in her individual and official capacities, JUDITH HAAS, in her individual and official official capacities, and LORI S. GONZALEZ, in her individual and official capacities, Defendants.

ORDER AND MEMORANDUM

RICHARD L. VOORHEES, District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss on the grounds of qualified immunity, and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Doc. 30).

I. BACKGROUND FACTS

Lanston Tanyi ("Tanyi"), an African-American male, enrolled at Appalachian State University on a football scholarship in the fall of 2008. (2d. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 8, 10). On September 14, 2011, Tanyi attended an off-campus party where alcohol was served. ( Id. ¶ 16). Tanyi and his roommate went into an upstairs bedroom with Student A, whom Tanyi did not previously know, and the trio had sex. ( Id. ¶¶ 17-18).

On September 19, 2011, Tanyi and his roommate received letters from the Appalachian State Dean of Students, ordering them to have "no contact" with Student B. Student B claimed to have been raped by Tanyi, his roommate, and three other "big and black" athletes in April. ( Id. ¶¶ 35-36). On September 23, 2011, Tanyi was informed by Defendant Haas[1] that he was being charged with various violations of the student code of conduct stemming from rape allegations made by both Student A and Student B, including sex offenses, sexual misconduct, harassment and hostile communications. ( Id. ¶ 39). Tanyi's disciplinary hearing, and that of his roommate, regarding Student A's allegations was set for October 18, 2011. ( Id. ¶ 55).

At the October 18 hearing, Defendants Wallace and Haas assigned Tanyi a philosophy graduate student with no legal expertise as his defense counsel. Student A was assigned a licensed attorney. ( Id. ¶ 57). Although Tanyi presented several potential witnesses with prepared written statements to Wallace and Haas, the administrators permitted only a student who walked in on Tanyi's sexual encounter with Student A to testify on behalf of Tanyi. ( Id. ¶ 61). Tanyi also contends that Wallace and Haas knew of two potential witnesses that would corroborate Tanyi's version of events, but did not inform Tanyi of the existence of these witnesses. ( Id. ¶¶ 85-86). The hearing panel found against both Tanyi and his roommate (their cases were decided together), and Tanyi was suspended for eight (8) semesters. ( Id. ¶¶ 64-65). At the hearing, Tanyi learned for the first time that his roommate had prior disciplinary violations, and later discovered that one of the jurors on the hearing panel had decided an earlier case against his roommate. ( Id. ¶¶ 64, 68).

Tanyi appealed the panel's decision, and his appeal was denied by a committee selected by Wallace. ( Id. ¶ 70). Tanyi spoke with the Chancellor of Appalachian State in early November, and the Chancellor told Tanyi that he would look into the matter. On November 18, 2011, Wallace granted Tanyi a new hearing regarding Student A's allegations, stating that Tanyi had been denied his right to a hearing separate from his roommate. ( Id. ¶¶ 71-72). On January 27, 2012, a hearing was held regarding student B's allegations, and the panel found in favor of Tanyi. ( Id. ¶ 78).

Following Tanyi's exoneration by the Student B panel, Student A posted a message on Facebook naming Tanyi and his roommates as rapists, and alleging that Appalachian State was attempting to protect them because they were football players. The post garnered statewide media attention. ( Id . ¶ 79-80). Student B appealed the panel's ruling, and on March 9, 2012, Defendant Gonzalez granted Student B's appeal. ( Id. ¶¶ 84, 89). At the new Student B hearing, Student B also accused Tanyi of harassing her on campus, in addition to the original allegations. ( Id. ¶ 97). Tanyi alleges he was not informed of the new harassment charge until the night before the hearing, and had no time to prepare witnesses to rebut the charge. ( Id. ¶ 98). On March 29, 2012, the panel cleared Tanyi of Student B's sexual misconduct allegations, but did find Tanyi responsible for the new charge of harassment. ( Id. ¶ 102).

On April 18, 2011, Tanyi's appeal of Student A's rape allegations was heard. ( Id. ¶ 106). For the appeal, Student A also added a charge of harassment to her original allegations. ( Id .) The panel found in favor of Tanyi on all charges. ( Id. ¶ 114). Tanyi graduated from Appalachian State in the summer of 2012. ( Id. ¶ 121). He enrolled in a graduate program at Colorado State University and used his final year of football eligibility at Colorado State. ( Id. ) Tanyi was not drafted by any NFL team, and is not currently on any NFL roster. Tanyi brought this suit on February 24, 2015, alleging violations of his Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process, substantive due process, and equal protection rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as gender discrimination in violation of 20 U.S.C. § 1681.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A Rule 12(b)(6) motion is a defense to a claim for relief and provides for dismissal where a party has failed "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the facts alleged must be sufficient "to raise a right to relief above the speculative level" and state a claim for relief "that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 564 (2007). A district court reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion "assumes all well-pled facts to be true" and "draw[s] all reasonable inferences in favor of the [non-moving party]." Tasz, Inc. v. Industrial Thermo Polymers, Ltd., 2015 WL 268500, at *5 (W.D. N.C. 2015). However, a reviewing district court comes to its own legal conclusions based on the facts and "need not accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions or arguments." Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc., 591 F.3d 250, 253 (4th Cir. 2009) (citations and quotations omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Section 1983 Procedural Due Process Claim

In order to state a § 1983 claim based on procedural due process, Tanyi must first demonstrate that he has been deprived of a cognizable liberty or property interest under the Fourteenth Amendment. Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 672 (1977). The Court must then determine whether the procedures employed to effect this deprivation were constitutionally adequate. Id . The Court assumes that students at public universities maintain protected property interests in their continued enrollment. See Cobb v. The Rector and Visitors of the Univ. of Va., 69 F.Supp.2d 815, 826 (W.D.Va. 1999); Henson v. Honor Committee of Univ. of Va., 719 F.2d 69, 73 (4th Cir. 1983). Students facing school discipline also possess a liberty interest in their reputations. See Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 576 (1975). Citing Tigrett v. Rector and Visitors of the Univ. of Va., Defendants claim Tanyi cannot base valid procedural due process claims on procedures that led to his exoneration. (Doc. 31, p. 11; 290 F.3d 620, 627-28 (4th Cir. 2002)). Defendants, however, mischaracterize the holding in Tigrett . In that case, although a student disciplinary panel recommended the defendants for expulsion, the University Vice President refused to ratify the panel's recommendation. The defendants in Tigrett never had their enrollment discontinued, and were not prevented from attending classes. Id. The Fourth Circuit found no procedural due process violation in Tigrett because no actual deprivation occurred, not because the defendants were ultimately exonerated. Id. Tanyi, by contrast, served multiple lengthy suspensions pursuant to ASU's allegedly flawed student disciplinary procedures. (2d. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 65, 89).

The question before the Court, then, is whether the procedures used to suspend Tanyi provided him sufficient due process to satisfy the Fourteenth Amendment. In the student disciplinary context, procedural due process minimally requires notice and an opportunity to be heard. See Goss, 419 U.S. at 579. Further, fundamental fairness requires that the hearing take place "at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner." Matthews v. Eldridge, 492 U.S. 319, 333 (1976). Although a full-scale trial is never required in student disciplinary proceedings, the level of procedural protection necessary "depends on three variables: 1) the nature of the interest protected; 2) the danger of error and the benefit of additional or other procedures; and 3) the burden on the government such procedures would present." See Matthews, 492 U.S. at 321. Thus, whether due process has been satisfied in a particular student hearing is heavily context-dependent. Tanyi points to seven separate actions taken by the defendants which he claims violated his procedural due process rights. The Court will address each in turn.

1.) Defendants Haas and Wallace excluded Tanyi's proffered witnesses from testifying at the first Student A hearing

Tanyi's first claimed due process violation concerns the exclusion of testimony from several character witnesses Tanyi intended to call, largely regarding Student A's sexual history, and from whom he had obtained written statements. None of the excluded witnesses were eyewitnesses, although one, who had allegedly been dating Student A, intended to testify that Student A had previously performed oral sex on himself and three other males on the night of her encounter with Tanyi. Student A's field hockey teammate, who entered the room during Student A's sexual encounter with Tanyi, was permitted to testify.

Federal Rule of Evidence 412 (b)(2) provides that, for civil cases, a court may only admit evidence "offered to prove a victim's sexual behavior or sexual predisposition if its probative value substantially outweighs the danger of harm to any victim." Fed.R.Evid. 412 (b)(2). Although the Federal Rules of Evidence do not apply to student disciplinary proceedings, the additional burdens they impose on testimony concerning sexual ...


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