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Miller v. North Carolina State University

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

August 6, 2019

ELIZABETH MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY; JULIE CASANI, in her individual and official capacity; LEAH ARNETT, in her individual and official capacity; and JANE DOE, in her individual and official capacity, Defendants.

          ORDER

          LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter and personal jurisdiction under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(2) and failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). (DE 15). The motion has been fully briefed, and the issues raised are ripe for decision. For the reasons that follow, the court grants defendants' motion.

         STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Plaintiff initiated this action by complaint filed September 28, 2018, in the General Court of Justice, Superior Court Division of Wake County. Plaintiff brings a myriad of claims all arising out of her termination from employment as a staff physician at student health services at North Carolina State University (“NCSU”).

         Defendants removed the action to this court on November 1, 2018, and filed instant motion to dismiss on December 7, 2018. Defendants argue that plaintiff's claims for wrongful termination and blacklisting as against defendant NCSU and individual defendants in their official capacities are barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity; plaintiff's claim against individual defendants in their individual capacities are barred by the doctrine of public officer's immunity; and that all of plaintiff's claims fail to state a claim. The court has stayed the parties scheduling activities pending resolution of the instant motion.

         STATEMENT OF THE FACTS

         The facts alleged in complaint as relevant to the resolution of the instant motion are as follows. Plaintiff is a former staff physician at student health services at NCSU. (Compl. (DE 1-1) ¶ 15). She held this position from approximately October 1, 2008 to approximately October 2, 2017. (Id. ¶¶ 15, 21). Throughout her employment, plaintiff met or exceeded the reasonable work expectations of defendants. (Id. ¶ 17).

         In August 2016, plaintiff wrote to defendant Leah Arnett (“Arnett”), raising concerns about deficiencies in one of the medical record software programs used at student health services. (Id. ¶ 18). Plaintiff alleges she told defendant Arnett, the former director of student health services, and others, that errors in this software program prevented NCSU from reporting student immunization compliance in a timely manner as required by North Carolina law. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 18-19). In December 2016, plaintiff brought her concerns about the software program to non-party Dr. Lisa Zapata (“Zapata”). (Id. ¶ 19).

         Plaintiff alleges defendant Arnett “and others in her supervisory chain of command developed animosity toward Plaintiff” because she reported her concerns. (Id. ¶ 20). Plaintiff alleges her immediate supervisor, defendant Julie Casani (“Casani”), former director of student health services, separated her employment in October 2017. (Id. ¶¶ 4, 13, 21). Plaintiff also alleges that following her termination, defendant Jane Doe “contacted UNC Health Care and provided false and unfavorable reference which prevent Plaintiff Miller from being hired by UNC.” (Id. ¶¶ 6, 82).

         DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) challenges the court's subject matter jurisdiction. Such motion may either 1) assert the complaint fails to state facts upon which subject matter jurisdiction may be based, or 2) attack the existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact, apart from the complaint. Adams v. Bain, 697 F.2d 1213, 1219 (4th Cir. 1982). Where a defendant raises a “facial challenge[] to standing that do[es] not dispute the jurisdictional facts alleged in the complaint, ” the court accepts “the facts of the complaint as true as [the court] would in context of a Rule 12(b)(6) challenge.” Kenny v. Wilson, 885 F.3d 280, 287 (4th Cir. 2018).

         Rule 12(b)(2) allows for dismissal of a claim for lack of personal jurisdiction. “When a district court considers a question of personal jurisdiction based on the contents of a complaint and supporting affidavits, the plaintiff has the burden of making a prima facie showing in support of its assertion of jurisdiction.” Universal Leather, LLC v. Koro AR, S.A., 773 F.3d 553, 558 (4th Cir. 2014). At this stage, the court “must construe all relevant pleading allegations in the light most favorable to plaintiff, assume credibility, and draw the most favorable inferences for the existence of jurisdiction.” Combs v. Bakker, 886 F.2d 673, 676 (4th Cir. 1989); see Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Akzo, N.V., 2 F.3d 56, 60 (4th Cir. 1993)(“[T]he district court must draw all reasonable inferences arising from the proof, and resolve all factual disputes, in the plaintiff's favor.”).

         “To survive a motion to dismiss” under Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 663 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. In evaluating whether a claim is stated, “[the] court accepts all well-pled facts as true and construes these facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, ” but does not consider “legal conclusions, elements of a cause of action, . . . bare assertions devoid of further factual enhancement[, ] . . . unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc., 591 F.3d 250, 255 (4th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted).

         B. Analysis

         Plaintiff's first claim under North Carolina's Whistleblower Act, N. C. Gen. Stat. § 126-85, and second claim for wrongful termination in violation of North Carolina's public policy, are directed against defendants NCSU, and Arnett, and Casani. The first claim asserts liability in Arnett and Casani's individual and official capacities, while the second claim is predicated only on their official capacity. Defendants Arnett and Casani, sued in their individual capacities, are the subject of her third claim for relief, tortious interference with contract. In plaintiff's fourth claim for relief, she asserts a cause of action for damages under North Carolina's constitution against defendants NCSU and Casani, in both her individual and official capacities, pursuant to Corum v. Univ. of N.C. , 330 N.C. 761, 782 (1992). Her fifth claim, pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. 201 et seq., and sixth claim, for blacklisting in contravention of North Carolina General Statute § 14-355, are directed against defendants NCSU and Arnett, in her individual and official capacities. Plaintiff additionally asserts a blacklisting claim against defendant Jane Doe, in her individual and official capacities.[1]

         The court will first address the applicability of sovereign immunity and public officer's immunity to certain of plaintiff's claims. The court will then turn to each of plaintiff's individual claims.

         1. Sovereign Immunity[2]

         The doctrine of sovereign immunity protects the state from suit unless it has expressly consented. Guthrie v. N.C. State Ports Author., 307 N.C. 522, 535 (1983). “It has long been established that an action cannot be maintained against the State of North Carolina or an agency thereof unless it consents to be sued or upon its waiver of ...


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