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Longo v. Aspinwall

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

July 17, 2019

ELIZABETH ASPINWALL, individually and in her official capacity as an employee of Western Carolina University, and WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA UNIVERSITY, Defendants.


          Max O. Cogburn, Jr., Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss by Defendants Elizabeth Aspinwall and Western Carolina University. (Doc. No. 15).


         After being removed as a student in the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program (the Program) at Western Carolina University (WCU), Plaintiff Jennifer Longo filed this action in Jackson County Superior Court on January 21, 2019, naming as Defendants WCU and Elizabeth Aspinwall, who was at all relevant times WCU's Assistant Director of Counseling and Psychological Services. On February 21, 2019, Defendants removed the action to this Court.

         Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss on March 29, 2019. On April 11, 2019, Plaintiff filed a Motion to Amend Complaint and an Amended Complaint. In her Amended Complaint, Plaintiff purportedly brings the following causes of action: (1) claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq., and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act), 29 U.S.C. § 794, against Defendant WCU; and, (2) state law claims of False Imprisonment, Abuse of Process, Malicious Prosecution, and “Infliction of Mental Distress” against Elizabeth Aspinwall, in both her individual and official capacities.

         On April 15, 2019, the magistrate judge denied the motion to amend as moot, as it was filed within 21 days of Defendants' motion to dismiss, and the magistrate judge further denied the motion to dismiss as moot, in light of the filing of the Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 13). On May 28, 2019, Defendants filed the pending motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 15). Defendants contend that Plaintiff's claims should be dismissed under Rules 12(b)(1), 12(b)(2), and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. On June 11, 2019, Plaintiff filed a response, and on June 18, 2019, Defendants filed a Reply. (Doc. Nos. 17, 19). This matter is therefore ripe for disposition.


         Plaintiff alleges in the Amended Complaint that while she was enrolled in the undergraduate program at WCU, she was diagnosed with an eating disorder and major depressive disorder. (Doc. No. 12 at ¶¶ 11, 14-15: Am. Compl.). In August 2016, Plaintiff began the Program at WCU, and she finished the semester with a 3.47 GPA. (Id. at ¶¶ 16, 19). In January 2017, after beginning her spring semester, Plaintiff took a medical withdrawal from the Program and began a one-month outpatient program in Virginia. (Id. at ¶ 20).

         After receiving treatment, Plaintiff reenrolled in the Program in January 2018. (Id. at ¶ 23). Before reenrolling, Plaintiff attested “to [her] ability to meet the essential functions of [their] physical therapy program as described in Essential Functions and Technical Standards of Physical Therapy.” (Doc. No. 12, Ex. A). In February 2018, Plaintiff met with Dr. Dave Hudson, Professor and Department Head of Physical Therapy at WCU. (Doc. No. 12 at ¶ 24). During the meeting, Dr. Hudson reminded Plaintiff that, before reenrolling, she had attested that she would be able to complete all of the essential functions of the program, which is a requirement for all students. (Id.).

         On March 1, 2018, Plaintiff's father had her involuntarily committed for three days at the Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva, North Carolina, and for three more days at the Haywood Regional Medical Center in Waynesville, North Carolina. (Id. at ¶ 26). After returning to the Program, Plaintiff attempted to make up the work she had missed while she was committed. (Id. at ¶ 28). On March 2, 2018, Plaintiff received a letter from Dr. Hudson dismissing her from the Program and explaining why she was being dismissed. (Doc. No. 12, Ex. A). Dr. Hudson explained that, upon her return to the Program, she had attested to her “ability to meet the essential function of [the] physical therapy program ….” (Id.). Specifically, he noted certain behaviors that she had exhibited since her return to the Program, including: (1) becoming disengaged, despondent, and unable to attend class after learning that she received a C; (2) “present[ing] to a practical examination with wounds that [she] admitted … were self-inflicted and related to stress”; (3) “threatening suicide as a condition of whether or not [she] remained in the DPT program”; and (4) without notifying any of the faculty, missing a week of class, which caused her to miss multiple exams and a quiz and prevented her from turning in her assignments. (Id.). Dr. Hudson explained that because these behaviors indicated an inability to fulfill the responsibilities of being a physical therapist, specifically the promotion of “the health, vitality, and wellbeing of others, ” Plaintiff was being dismissed from the Program. (Id.).

         After Plaintiff was dismissed from the Program, Elizabeth Aspinwall, WCU's Assistant Director of Counseling and Psychological Services completed a petition for involuntary commitment against Plaintiff, pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 122C-261. (Id. at ¶ 33). A local magistrate approved the petition, and Plaintiff was taken to Raleigh, North Carolina, for about one week. (Id. at ¶ 34; Def.'s Ex. 1).[1] The Petition expired after one week, and Plaintiff was released from custody. (Id. at ¶ 34).


         Defendants have moved for dismissal of Plaintiff's claims under Rule 12(b)(1) and Rule 12(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure based on sovereign immunity and, alternatively, under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure based on failure to state a claim. When determining the existence of subject matter jurisdiction, the Court may look to evidence outside the pleadings without converting a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to a motion for summary judgment. See, e.g., Evans v. B. F. Perkins Co., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999). “When a defendant challenges subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), ‘the district court is to regard the pleadings as mere evidence on the issue, and may consider evidence outside the pleadings without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment.'” Id. (citations omitted). The plaintiff bears the burden of proving subject matter jurisdiction exists. Id.

         For Rule 12(b)(2) challenges to jurisdiction, the pleading's allegations are merely evidence on the issue and are not controlling. “When personal jurisdiction is properly challenged under Rule 12(b)(2), the jurisdictional question is to be resolved by the judge, with the burden on the plaintiff ultimately to prove grounds for jurisdiction by a preponderance of the ...

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