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Clemmons v. Guilford Technical Community College

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

July 21, 2017



          Thomas D. Schroeder United States District Judge.

         This action arises out of Plaintiff's long-term suspension from classes at a community college for alleged violations of the student code of conduct. Before the court are the parties' competing motions for summary judgment (Docs. 30, 34) and Plaintiff's motion to strike evidence outside the administrative record (Doc. 38). For the reasons that follow, the court will deny Plaintiff's motions, grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment on Plaintiff's federal claims, and remand the action to State court for further consideration of Plaintiff's State-law claims under the North Carolina Constitution and North Carolina's Administrative Procedure Act.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Bailey Clemmons enrolled as a student in the dental assisting program for the 2015 academic year at Guilford Technical Community College (“GTCC”), a public community college in Jamestown, North Carolina. (Doc. 11 ¶ 3; Doc. 31 ¶ 3; Doc. 35 ¶ 3.) On September 15, 2015, she was walking her dog, Penelope, near her home in Durham, when the pet was tragically struck and killed by a car. (Doc. 4 ¶ 6; Doc. 11 ¶ 6; Doc. 31 ¶ 6.) Clemmons sent a text message to her professor, Sherry Shook, explaining: “Good morning, Mrs. Shook. This is Bailey. I won't be in class today. My sister died in a car accident this morning.”[1] (Doc. 35 ¶ 8(a); Doc. 35-6 at 3, 8.) When Professor Shook contacted Clemmons later that evening, Clemmons thanked the teacher for her consolation and responded, “It is not easy. Life is different now at home.” (Doc. 35-6 at 3.) Clemmons missed the next two days of classes. (Id. at 4.) As gestures of sympathy, Clemmons's peers purchased a card and collected money - described as “close to $200” - in honor of her sister. (Id. at 5; Doc. 35-13 at 6-7; Doc. 35-14 at 27.)

         Mrs. Snider, the GTCC dental assisting department chair, also emailed her condolences as to Clemmons's “little sister” and assured Clemmons that “[t]his certainly qualifies as an extenuating circumstance, so you will not be penalized for absences during this time. . . . Stay with your family.” (Doc. 35-6 at 7.) The next day, Clemmons informed Mrs. Snider that she was in the process of making funeral arrangements. (Id.) Clemmons also reported to her instructors that there was going to be a memorial service for her sister at Kingdom Hall on September 18, 2015, and that she would be taking a few days off for “mental mollification.” (Id. at 3; Doc. 35 ¶ 8(b).) Clemmons further explained that, because the service would be shortly thereafter, she would be wearing her black dress to class. (Doc. 35 ¶ 8(c); Doc. 35-6 at 4.) Clemmons also spoke to Violeta Herrera, an administrative assistant in the dental department, and informed her that she had two sisters, Madison and Penelope, and that Penelope was the sister who died. (Doc. 35-6 at 5.)

         Because of her absences, Clemmons was reaching the maximum number allowable without incurring an academic penalty. (Id.) On multiple occasions, Professor Shook and Dr. Richard Foster, director of the dental program, inquired about an obituary and requested that Clemmons bring one to GTCC officials so that her absences could be excused. (Id.; Doc. 35 ¶ 8.) Clemmons agreed to do so. (Doc. 35-6 at 5.) About ten days into the charade, however, GTCC faculty discovered through Facebook that Penelope was not Clemmons's sister, but her dog. (Doc. 35 ¶ 8k.) Dr. Foster then filed a formal complaint, charging that Clemmons had violated GTCC's Student Conduct Policy. (Id. ¶ 6; Doc. 35-9 at 2-3).

         Students enrolled at GTCC are provided and required to comply with several policies, guidelines, and regulations (Doc. 35-4 at 2), including GTCC's Student Conduct Policy (also referred to as the “Student Code of Conduct”). (Doc. 35 ¶ 9; Doc. 36 ¶ 4).[2] That policy provides:

Students may not display conduct on Guilford Technical Community College premises or at GTCC sponsored events that adversely affects the college's educational objectives, is illega1, or is contrary to the rules and regulations of the college. Students who display such conduct shall be subject to disciplinary action under the college's disciplinary policy. The Student Code of Conduct may also apply to off-campus incidents or behaviors when college administrators determine that off-campus conduct affects a substantial interest of the college. The student has the right to appeal disciplinary action. A full text of the Student Policy and disciplinary procedures is available in the Medlin Campus Center (Jamestown Campus), Suite 320.
Conduct prohibited by this rule shall be determined by the President, consistent with this definition.

(Doc. 35-9 at 2.) The policy goes on to set out prohibited conduct by means of an illustrative list - which expressly “does not include all conduct that could be prohibited” - and includes “[f]orgery, alteration, or misuse of college documents, records, or instruments of identification providing false information to the college”; “[a]buse of the Student Code of Conduct, including but not limited to . . . falsifying, distorting or misrepresenting before a Disciplinary Review Committee”; and “[b]ehavior that adversely impacts the learning environment adversely affecting the college community's pursuit of its educational purposes.” (Id. at 2-3.)

         On October 2, Michael Hughes, Chief Disciplinary Officer at GTCC, informed Clemmons of the claims against her and that he would be investigating. (Doc. 35 ¶¶ 6-7; Doc. 35-7.) Hughes explained that Clemmons was alleged to have violated two provisions of the GTCC Student Conduct Policy: (1) forgery, alteration, or misuse of college documents, records, or instruments of identification providing false information to the college, and (2) violation of local, state, or federal criminal law on college premises. (Doc. 35-7 at 3.) Clemmons emailed Hughes on October 6, writing that she took full responsibility for the miscommunication. (Doc. 31 ¶ 11; Doc. 31-2.) Hughes and Clemmons met on October 7, when Hughes informed Clemmons that she was accused of providing false information to GTCC, stating falsely that her sister had died in a car accident. (Doc. 35 ¶ 7.) After the meeting, on October 23, Hughes determined that Clemmons had violated the Student Conduct Policy by providing false information to a college official and placed her on restricted probation for four semesters. (Id. ¶ 12; Doc. 35-10.)

         On October 26, Clemmons appealed Hughes' decision to the GTCC Review Committee. (Doc. 31 ¶ 16.) A hearing for her appeal was set for November 3. (Id.) Before the hearing, Hughes emailed Clemmons to inform her of the witnesses that GTCC officials would call and information concerning her rights during the hearing. (Doc. 35-12 at 3-5.) These rights included the right to have counsel present, the right to call witnesses and present evidence, and the right to testify or refuse to testify. (Id.) Hughes' email noted, however, that if Clemmons elected to have counsel present at the hearing, her counsel could not address the committee. (Id. at 3.) Hughes's email also explained that the Review Committee would determine appropriate sanctions, which would not be limited to those imposed by Hughes. (Id. at 4.) Clemmons also had the right to appeal the Review Committee's decision, but only for two grounds: (1) the severity of the penalty, or (2) an alleged violation of GTCC's procedures during the hearing or investigation. (Doc. 35-17 at 8.)

         At the hearing, faculty and students testified that Clemmons told them that her ten-year-old sister had been killed. Faculty witnesses also expressed concerns about whether Clemmons could be trusted, especially during clinic rotations. (Doc. 35-13 at 31-32, 44-45; Doc. 35-14 at 32-34.) At the hearing, Clemmons discussed the service held for her dog at a local place of worship. (Doc. 35-15 at 5.) But on November 9, when asked about the service, Clemmons stated that there was no service; instead, a few individuals had convened to comfort her. (Doc. 35-16 at 2.) Clemmons later argued that her hearing testimony was a miscommunication. (Id.) The Review Committee voted to suspend Clemmons until the fall 2016 semester. (Doc. 35 ¶¶ 21, 23; Doc. 35-17 at 2.) The Review Committee also mandated that Clemmons complete ethics training before re-enrolling. (Doc. 35-17 at 2.)

         Clemmons again appealed her decision to Dr. Quentin Johnson, Vice President of Student Support Services. (Doc. 4 ¶ 17; Doc. 11 ¶ 3; Doc. 35 ¶¶ 23-24.) Johnson affirmed the Review Committee's decision, finding no violation of GTCC's procedures during the hearing or investigation and concluding that the sanction imposed was appropriate. (Doc. 35-18 at 2.) Because Clemmons was suspended and could not complete her coursework, GTCC gave her failing grades for her incomplete courses. (Doc. 31 ¶ 22.)

         On February 25, 2016, Clemmons filed this action, as amended, against GTCC and Johnson in Durham County Superior Court (Doc. 1-1), and Defendants timely removed the case to this court (Doc. 1). Clemmons seeks reversal and expungement of her long-term suspension, alteration of her failing grades to incomplete grades, a refund of any tuition paid to GTCC by or on her behalf, an injunction, and attorneys' fees. Following discovery, the parties filed competing motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 30, 34.) Clemmons later moved to strike certain evidence GTCC submitted, arguing that it is inadmissible because it was not a part of GTCC's administrative record. (Doc. 38.)

         II. ANALYSIS

         Summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, affidavits, and other proper discovery materials demonstrate that no genuine dispute as to any material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-33 (1986). The party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of initially demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute as to any material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If this burden is met, the nonmoving party must then affirmatively demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact which requires trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). There is no issue for trial unless sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party exists for a factfinder to return a verdict for that party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 257 (1986).

         A. ...

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