United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
TED D. SPRING, Plaintiff,
THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF CAPE FEAR COMMUNITY COLLEGE, et al., Defendants.
TERRENCE W. BOYLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Motion for Summary Judgment
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).
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.
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.
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 ...