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Gulyas v. Appalachian State University

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

August 28, 2017

FRANK GULYAS, Plaintiff,
APPALACHIAN STATE UNIVERSITY, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA, CINDY A. WALLACE, in her individual and official capacities, JUDITH HASS, in her individual and official capacities, DAVID J. ELROD, in his individual and official capacities, and DARRELL P. KRUGER, in his official capacity, Defendants.


          Richard L. Voorhees, United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER IS BEFORE THE COURT on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 27). The parties have filed their respective briefs (Docs. 28, 29, 30) and this matter is ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 27) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.


         In fall semester of 2014, Plaintiff Frank Gulyas started his sophomore year at Appalachian State University (“App. State” or the “University”), a collegiate institution within the University of North Carolina system. (See Doc. 1 at 1). In October 2014, Plaintiff and Melissa Costa, who lived in the same co-ed dormitory building, commenced an exclusive dating relationship. Id. at 2. The relationship between Plaintiff and Costa proved rocky, and Plaintiff alleges that Costa frequently exhibited “extreme jealousy” when she observed other females interacting with him. Id. On the evening of February 21, 2015, Plaintiff, a friend of Plaintiff's, and the sister of Plaintiff's friend attended a party. Id. The party lasted late into the night and by the time Plaintiff left the party, his friend's sister was unable to return to the dorm room where she had intended to spend the night. Id. Plaintiff invited his friend's sister to spend the night in his dorm room, which Plaintiff's roommate also occupied. Id. Costa learned that a female was staying in Plaintiff's dorm room, entered Plaintiff's room, and cursed at, yelled at, kicked, and hit Plaintiff. Id. at 3. Costa briefly left Plaintiff's room but, soon thereafter, reentered his room to return several of Plaintiff's clothing items and to further berate Plaintiff. Id.

         According to Plaintiff, the events on the night of February 21, 2015 marked the official end of his and Costa's exclusive relationship. Id. Nonetheless, Plaintiff and Costa continued to sporadically hang out and spend nights in each other's rooms, in what might be best described as a casual relationship. See id. During spring break, Plaintiff commenced a relationship with another female and informed Costa of such once classes were back in session. Id. Costa did not take well to this information and sent Plaintiff a series of “increasingly angry and hostile” texts. Id. On March 28, 2015, approximately ten days after informing Costa of his new relationship, Plaintiff went to Costa's dorm room to fully end his relationship with Costa. Id. When he arrived at Costa's dorm room, he found the door to her room ajar, he tapped on the door, and then entered Costa's room. Id. With Costa's roommate present, Plaintiff and Costa commenced a conversation about the end of their relationship. Id. During the conversation, Costa's roommate left, Costa began to cry, and Plaintiff attempted to comfort her by placing his hand on her upper arms. Id. at 4. The two continued their conversation until Costa's roommate returned, at which point Costa and her roommate asked Plaintiff to leave. Id. Plaintiff complied with this request and left Costa's room. Id.

         On March 30, 2015, Costa filed a criminal trespassing charge relative to Plaintiff's entry into her dorm room on March 28, 2015. Id. Costa also filed a 50B Complaint with a motion for a domestic violence protective order (“50B Complaint”), in which she alleged that Plaintiff threatened to kill her and kill her family if she told people any of his secrets. Id. On April 1, 2015, Costa filed a second criminal charge against Plaintiff, this one for communicating threats. See Id. In early April 2015, Costa also filed a complaint with Defendant App. State. Id. In her complaint with App. State, Costa accused Plaintiff of harassment, unauthorized entry into her dorm room, making threats, and causing bodily harm. Id.

         App. State commenced its investigation into the matter on April 8, 2015, assigning Investigator Stacy Sears to the matter. Id. During the course of the investigation, Sears learned of the February 21, 2015 altercation between Costa and Plaintiff. Id. Sears reported the events of February 21, 2015 to Defendant David J. Elrod and to Defendant Judith Hass but was instructed to investigate only Costa's complaint about the events of March 28, 2015 and to omit details of the February 21, 2015 incident from her investigation report. Relative to the February 21, 2015 incident, the investigation report, which is provided to the University Conduct Board, read: “On the night of February 21/22 [Plaintiff] and [Costa] had an argument and decided to stop dating.” Id.

         In September 2015, proceedings on Costa's 50B Complaint commenced, with the 50B Court taking testimony from witnesses on Thursday, September 17 and Friday, September 18. Id. at 5. Defendant Elrod testified at the hearing, observed the testimony of several witnesses who provided testimony adverse to Costa's allegations, and was aware that the 50B Court scheduled a final day of hearing testimony, to include the subpoenaed testimony of Investigator Sears, for Monday October 5, 2015. Id. On Saturday, September 19, Defendant Elrod issued Plaintiff an “official notice” that formally advised Plaintiff of the charges against him and informed him that his University Conduct Board hearing was scheduled for Friday, October 2, 2015. Id. Plaintiff moved to continue his student conduct hearing and Defendant Elrod denied the motion. Id. The University Conduct Board hearing occurred on Friday, October 2, 2015, with several students testifying but Investigator Sears not appearing. Id. at 6. On October 5, 2015, the Rule 50B Court held its final hearing on Costa's 50B Complaint, during which Investigator Sears testified about the events of February 21, 2015 and Defendant Elrod's and Defendant Hass's directive to Sears about not including the events of February 21 in her investigation report. Id. at 5-6. Prior to Sears's testimony at the 50B Complaint hearing on October 5, 2015, Plaintiff was unaware that Defendant Elrod and Defendant Hass had directed Sears not to investigate the February 21 incident and to omit details of the incident from the investigation report provided to the University Conduct Board. See Id. at 4-5.

         The 50B Court concluded that Costa did not present sufficient proof to sustain her burden and dismissed her 50B Complaint. Id. at 6. On October 7, 2015, the University Conduct Board found Plaintiff “responsible” for “unlawful entry” and for “acts of harm, ” suspended Plaintiff for the remainder of the fall 2015 academic term, and required Plaintiff to meet certain conditions before he could return to App. State in a future semester. Id. Plaintiff appealed the University Conduct Board's decision, raising several procedural and evidentiary challenges and noting that he was not provided a copy of his hearing transcript for purposes of appeal. Id. at 6-7. On November 10, 2015, Plaintiff received a letter from Defendant Cindy A. Wallace that indicated that his appeal had been denied. Id. at 7. On November 17, 2015, the district attorney dismissed the criminal charges filed by Costa. Id.

         In January 2016, Plaintiff filed an initial action against Defendants. Gulyas v. Appalachian State University, Case No. 5:16-cv-00028-RLV-DSC, Doc. 1-1. After removal of the action to federal court and with a pending motion to dismiss by Defendants, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed his initial action pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(a)(1)(A)(i). Id. at Doc. 20. Plaintiff filed the pending complaint in December 2016. Plaintiff's pending complaint raises five causes of action: (1) denial of due process as guaranteed by Article 1, Section 19 of the North Carolina Constitution (Count One); (2) denial of due process as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Count Two); (3) denial of the right to equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Count Three); (4) denial of the right to equal protection under the law as guaranteed by Article 1, Section 19 of the North Carolina Constitution (Count Four); and (5) discrimination on the basis of gender in violation of Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 (Count Five). Id. at 8-12. Plaintiff's pending complaint seeks relief in the form of an order requiring App. State to expunge his record of any suspension and incomplete grades, compensatory damages, litigation costs, and attorney fees. Id. at 12. Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff's pending complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), generally arguing that Plaintiff does not allege facts that can support a constitutional due process violation, that Plaintiff does not allege facts demonstrating that he was similarly situated to another female student or that any defendant treated him differently on the basis of his gender/sex, that Plaintiff did not exhaust all available state law remedies before bringing his state constitutional claims, and that the Defendants named in their individual capacity are entitled to qualified immunity. (Doc. 27, Doc. 28 at 7-22).


         A. Standard of Review

         When reviewing a motion to dismiss, a court must examine the legal sufficiency of the complaint; it may not resolve factual disputes or weigh the claims and defenses against one another. See Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). Further, a court must accept as true all of the well-pled factual allegations contained in the complaint. See Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993). While Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a) does not require “detailed factual allegations, ” a complaint must offer more than “naked assertion[s]” and unadorned “labels and conclusions.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). In order to survive a motion to dismiss, the facts alleged must be sufficient to “raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570 (2007). Requiring plausibility “does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage, ” id. at 556, but does demand more than a “sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully, ” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Ultimately, a claim is facially plausible when the factual content allows for the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id.

         B. Fourteenth Amendment Procedural Due Process Claim[1]

         i. Legal Standard

         To raise a procedural due process claim under the Fourteenth Amendment, a Plaintiff must allege “(1) a cognizable ‘liberty' or ‘property' interest; (2) the deprivation of that interest by ‘some form of state action'; and (3) that the procedures employed were constitutionally inadequate.” IotaXi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. Patterson, 566 F.3d 138, 145 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Stone v. Univ. of Md. Med. Sys. Corp., 855 F.2d 167, 172 (4th Cir. 1988)). For purposes of their motion to dismiss, Defendants only challenge whether Plaintiff's Complaint contains allegations capable of supporting the third element of a procedural due process claim. (See Doc. 28 at 7-16). On the most basic level, due process requires that a university student facing suspension or expulsion receive (1) “adequate notice of the charges against him”; (2) “the opportunity to be heard by disinterested parties”; (3) the opportunity to be “confronted by his accuser[]”; and (4) “the right to have a record of the hearing reviewed by a student appellate body.” Henson v. Honor Comm. of the Univ. of Va., 719 F.2d 69, 74 (4th Cir. 1983). The opportunity to be heard is not a pro forma requirement and, instead, entails providing the accused student “the opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.” Matthews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 333 (1976) (internal quotation marks omitted). The “timing and content of the notice and the nature of the hearing will depend on appropriate accommodation of the competing interests involved, ” namely the risk to the accused of the hearing resulting in an errant result and the unfair or mistaken suspension of the accused versus the need of the educational institution to instill order and discipline and to foster a safe environment conducive to learning. See Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 579-81 (1975) (discussing procedural due process in context of high school setting). Ultimately, whether the procedures employed in a given case satisfy procedural due ...

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