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Spring v. Board of Trustees of Cape Fear Community College

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division

January 27, 2017

TED D. SPRING, Plaintiff,
v.
THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF CAPE FEAR COMMUNITY COLLEGE, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          TERRENCE W. BOYLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on defendants’ motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff has responded, defendant has replied, and the matter is ripe for ruling. Also pending and ripe for adjudication is plaintiff’s motion for sanctions. For the reasons discussed below, both motions are denied.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was selected by the Board of Trustees of Cape Fear Community College (CFCC or the college), located in Wilmington, North Carolina, to serve as its President, and his employment agreement with the CFCC Board was executed on August 28, 2012. [DE 112-5]. Plaintiff’s initial term of employment was for three years, subject to either early termination or renewal pursuant to the terms of the agreement. Id. The agreement further provided that plaintiff’s employment could be terminated for cause, which would require the board of trustees to provide plaintiff with written notice explaining the basis for termination and plaintiff’s right to a hearing. Id.

         Plaintiff alleges in his complaint that his tenure as President of CFCC was filled with change and transition, including replacement of senior staff and construction of new buildings. Beginning in the fall of 2014, the local media began to report on actions taken by plaintiff in his role as CFCC President. The reports included questions regarding travel reimbursements by the college to plaintiff for his wife’s travel and other expenses as well as plaintiff’s mileage reimbursements for a car provided to plaintiff at no cost. See, e.g., [DE 112-14]. In November 2014, plaintiff met with the Jason Harris, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, regarding the media coverage and plaintiff’s car and travel expenses. [DE 118-1], Spring Dep. at 118.

         On January 6, 2015, the board of trustees held an executive committee meeting in closed session at which plaintiff appeared. [DE 112-22]. Plaintiff’s contract, travel, vehicle, and reimbursements were discussed. Id. Also discussed were plaintiff’s memberships in outside agencies or clubs for which the college paid and plaintiff’s decision to hire Bill Loope, a personal friend, as a consultant to prepare a report for the college. Id. The following day, plaintiff emailed Harris noting that the car plaintiff had used had been returned and that several of his professional memberships were either cancelled or would be billed to plaintiff personally. [DE 112-28].

         At a regularly scheduled meeting on January 22, 2015, the CFCC Board voted to go into executive session and plaintiff was asked to leave. [DE 112-47]. During the closed session, the college’s director of human resources and vice president were called in to meet with the board. Id. Plaintiff was next called into the closed session and contends that he was told that his contract would not be renewed in November 2015, and that he could either resign immediately or the board would return to open session and fire him. [DE 118-1], Spring Dep. at 268-270. Plaintiff states that he asked whether he would have until the next morning to weigh his options and that the board refused his request, and that when he inquired as to the basis of his termination, he was told that he had not done what the board had asked him to do. Plaintiff contends that he had no choice at that point but to resign that night. Id. Following plaintiff’s resignation, there was some discussion with the board regarding a severance package. See, e.g. [DE 118-4], Turner Dep. at 91. No severance was ultimately paid, and the parties disagree as to whether an agreement was reached. See, e.g. [DE 112-24], Ibrahim Aff. at ¶ 19.

         In his second amended complaint, plaintiff raises four substantive claims for relief: breach of contract, violation of due process/constitutionally guaranteed liberty interest under Article I § 19 of the North Carolina Constitution, violation of due process/liberty interest under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the individual board members in their official capacities, and an alternative claim for breach of severance agreement. Plaintiff further seeks an award of attorneys’ fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and N.C. Gen. Stat. § 6-19.1.

         ANALYSIS

         I. Motion for Summary Judgment

         A motion for summary judgment may not be granted unless there are no genuine issues of material fact for trial and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If that burden has been met, the non-moving party must then come forward and establish the specific material facts in dispute to survive summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 588 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists for trial, a trial court views the evidence and the inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). However, “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence” in support of the nonmoving party’s position is not sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment; “there must be evidence on which the [fact finder] could reasonably find for the [nonmoving party].” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). Speculative or conclusory allegations will not suffice. Thompson v. Potomac Elec. Power Co., 312 F.3d 645, 649 (4th Cir. 2002).

         The Court begins its analysis of defendants’ motion with plaintiff’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim, through which he alleges that he was denied due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, plaintiff alleges that his property interest in his continued employment by the college requires that he be afforded due process of law prior to termination. Plaintiff further alleges that as a public employee he had a liberty interest to pursue the occupation of his choice and was entitled to due process of law prior to his employer taking any action which might stigmatize him or impair his right to pursue his occupation. Plaintiff seeks reinstatement to his former position and the right to an impartial hearing to restore his name.

         College professors and staff whose employment has been terminated during the terms of their contracts have been found to “have interests in continued employment that are safeguarded by due process.” Bd. of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577 (1972). In order to have a property interest in the benefit of continued employment, a person must have a legitimate claim of entitlement to continued employment, not merely a unilateral expectation of it. Id. An employee’s liberty interest is implicated where a state makes a “charge against him that might seriously damage his standing and associations in his community.” Id. at 573. If such a charge is made, due process requires an opportunity to refute such charge. Id.

         Here, plaintiff’s employment contract, the original term of which had not expired and which provided for termination only for cause, plainly provided plaintiff with a property interest in his continued employment. Stone v. Univ. of Maryland Med. Sys. Corp., 855 F.2d 167, 172 (4th Cir. 1988). However, if plaintiff “resigned of his own free will even though prompted to do so by events set in motion by his employer, he relinquished his property interest voluntarily and thus cannot establish that the state ‘deprived’ him of it within the meaning of the due process clause.” Id. at 173. The question then before the Court is whether there is a genuine issue of material fact in the ...


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