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Gati v. Western Kentucky University

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

June 18, 2018

JASON D. GATI, Plaintiff,
v.
WESTERN KENTUCKY UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DAVID J. HALE, JUDGE

         Plaintiff Jason D. Gati has moved to alter, amend, or vacate the Judgment in this case and to certify a question of law to the Kentucky Supreme Court. (Docket No. 46) Because the Court concludes that it did not commit a clear error of law in its previous Memorandum Opinion and Order (D.N. 44), and because his request to certify a question is untimely and without merit, Gati's motion will be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Gati alleges that he was discriminated against on the basis of disability when he was denied certain accommodations while attending Western Kentucky University. (D.N. 1-1) He asserts claims of disability discrimination against WKU under the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Id.) He asserts state-law claims of tortious interference with contractual relations, promissory estoppel, and fraud against Crissy Priddy, WKU's Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions. (Id.) Gati further asserts that Priddy and Dr. Bill Kline, WKU's Head of the Department of Counseling, aided and abetted WKU's discriminatory practices. (Id.)

         Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the individual defendants were entitled to immunity and that Gati's accommodation requests were not reasonable. (D.N. 38; D.N. 38-1) Gati also moved for partial summary judgment on his claims against WKU, arguing that no genuine issues of fact remained to be determined regarding the school's liability. (D.N. 39; D.N. 39-1) In a Memorandum Opinion and Order entered September 27, 2017, the Court granted Defendants' motion and denied Gati's motion. (D.N. 44) The Court determined that Priddy was entitled to sovereign immunity on Gati's official-capacity claims against her under state law; Kline and Priddy were entitled to qualified official immunity on Gati's individual-capacity claims against them under both state and federal law; and WKU-and by extension, Kline and Priddy in their official capacities-did not violate the KCRA, the Rehabilitation Act, or the ADA in denying Gati's accommodation requests. (Id.) Gati now seeks relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) and certification of a question of law to the Kentucky Supreme Court. (D.N. 46)

         II. STANDARDS

         “Rule 59(e) allows for reconsideration; it does not permit parties to effectively ‘re-argue a case.'” Howard v. United States, 533 F.3d 472, 475 (6th Cir. 2008) (quoting Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians v. Engler, 146 F.3d 367, 374 (6th Cir. 1998)). A motion under Rule 59(e) may be granted for one of four reasons: “(1) a clear error of law; (2) newly discovered evidence; (3) an intervening change in controlling law; or (4) a need to prevent manifest injustice.” Intera Corp. v. Henderson, 428 F.3d 605, 620 (6th Cir. 2005) (citing GenCorp, Inc. v. Am. Int'l Underwriters, 178 F.3d 804, 834 (6th Cir. 1999)).

         When presented with questions of Kentucky law that may decide a case, and when it appears that there is no binding precedent from the Kentucky Supreme Court or Court of Appeals, then this Court may certify those questions of Kentucky law to the Kentucky Supreme Court. Ky. R. Civ. P. 76.37(1). The decision to certify is, however, left to this Court's discretion. Transamerica Ins. Co. v. Duro Bag Mfg. Co., 50 F.3d 370, 372 (6th Cir. 1995). Certification is “most appropriate when the question is new and state law is unsettled.” Ky. Press Ass'n v. Kentucky, 355 F.Supp.2d 853, 863 (E.D. Ky. 2005) (quoting Transamerica, 50 F.3d at 372).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Reconsideration

         Gati urges the Court to alter, amend, or vacate its earlier Judgment and allow him to proceed with all of his claims against Defendants. (D.N. 46-1, PageID # 856) The Court notes at the outset that Gati has not pointed to any newly discovered evidence, an intervening change in the law, or a need to prevent manifest injustice. (See D.N. 46; D.N. 46-1) The Court therefore presumes that Gati's Rule 59(e) motion is based only upon alleged errors of law. See Henderson, 428 F.3d at 620.

         1. Official-Capacity Immunity of Kline and Priddy

         a. KCRA

         The Court previously reasoned that because any recovery against Kline and Priddy in their official capacities would be, in effect, recovery against WKU, the Court's analysis of Gati's claims against WKU applied equally to Gati's claims against Kline and Priddy in their official capacities. (D.N. 44, PageID # 843) Gati asserts that the Court skipped an analysis of whether Kline and Priddy violated the KCRA by aiding and abetting disability discrimination under Ky. Rev. Stat. § 344.280. (D.N. 46-1, PageID # 858) But § 344.280 states that “[i]t shall be unlawful for a person . . . to conspire . . . [t]o aid, abet, incite, compel, or coerce a person to engage in any of the acts or practices declared unlawful by this chapter.” Ky. Rev. Stat. § 344.280(2). There can be no conspiracy to aid or abet in the absence of any discriminatory acts or practices. See Reed v. Gulf Coast Enters., No. 3:15-CV-00295-JHM, 2016 WL 79998, at *12 (W.D. Ky. Jan. 6, 2016) (“A party who cannot be liable for the underlying tort as a matter of law-as [the defendant] cannot be liable for the underlying disability discrimination claim- cannot be liable for conspiracy to commit that tort.”) (citing CNH Capital Am. LLC v. Hunt Tractor, Inc., 568 Fed.Appx. 461, 472-73 (6th Cir. 2014); GATX Corp. v. Addington, 879 F.Supp.2d 633, 649-50 (E.D. Ky. 2012)). And the Court already concluded that WKU did not unlawfully discriminate against Gati.[1] (D.N. 44, PageID # 848-52) The Court is unaware of any authority, and Gati cites none, suggesting that the Court's analysis on that point was flawed. In the absence of a clear error of law, Gati's argument provides no basis for Rule 59(e) relief. See Henderson, 428 F.3d at 620.

         Gati next points to an argument Defendants made in their motion for summary judgment, namely, that “[b]ecause any claim against these Defendants in their official capacities is actually a claim against WKU . . . Plaintiff has failed to state a viable claim against them other than the claims asserted directly against WKU.” (D.N. 46-1, PageID # 858-59; D.N. 38-1, PageID # 709) Gati then argues that this statement was “insufficient to sustain a Motion for Summary Judgment, yet this claim [for aiding and abetting discrimination under § 344.280] was dismissed.” (D.N. 46-1, PageID # 859) Again, Gati cites no authority suggesting that the Court made a clear error of law in its earlier Memorandum Opinion and Order.

         Gati also takes issue with the Court's observation that because all of the individuals who made decisions related to his accommodation requests were employed by WKU, it was not critical to the Court's analysis that WKU's decisions be precisely attributed to a specific WKU official. (D.N. 46-1, PageID # 859; D.N. 44, PageID # 840) Specifically, Gati argues that the Court skipped an analysis of Kline and Priddy's aiding-and-abetting liability. (D.N. 46-1, PageID # 859) This argument is unpersuasive for the reasons already discussed. Gati also argues, without citation to any legal authority, that the Court's logic “ignores each person's convoluted role in violating the law.” (Id.) The Court's prior Memorandum Opinion and Order explained in detail why particular defendants could not be held liable under the law, and Gati has failed to demonstrate any clear errors of law that would necessitate Rule 59(e) relief.

         Finally, Gati asserts that a jury should be able to determine whether different provisions of the KCRA were violated by Priddy and Kline individually or by WKU as a whole given that he sought the possibility of equitable or injunctive relief. (D.N. 46-1, PageID # 858) In his summary-judgment briefing, Gati argued that the claims against Defendants in their official capacities should not be dismissed “[s]ince equitable relief is still a possibility in this case.” (D.N. 41, PageID # 783) As the Court explained in its earlier ruling, the distinction between monetary and equitable relief is relevant for purposes of sovereign immunity. (See D.N. 44, PageID # 843) See Woodward v. Elizabethtown Cmty. & Tech. Coll., No. 3:14-CV-00776-CRS, 2015 WL 4464100, at *4 (W.D. Ky. July 21, 2015) (“The Ex parte Young exception allows claims for prospective relief against state officials in their official capacities to proceed uninhibited by sovereign immunity.”). Sovereign immunity is not a bar to Gati's claims against Kline and Priddy in their official capacities, however, because the Kentucky legislature has waived sovereign immunity for claims brought under the KCRA. See, e.g., Dep't of Corr. v. Furr, 23 S.W.3d 615, 616 (Ky. 2000). The Court granted Kline and Priddy summary judgment on Gati's official-capacity KCRA claims because it concluded that WKU did not violate the KCRA. (D.N. 44, PageID # 843, 848, 852) Because Gati has pointed to no clear error of law with respect to that conclusion, his argument concerning equitable relief is also unavailing.

         b. Tortious Interference with Contract, Promissory Estoppel, Fraud

         The Court granted summary judgment in favor of Priddy on Gati's official-capacity claims against her for tortious interference with contract, promissory estoppel, and fraud. (D.N. 44, PageID # 844) The Court reasoned that because Gati alleged these state-law claims seeking damages rather than injunctive relief, Priddy was entitled to sovereign immunity and could not be held liable for these claims in her official capacity. (Id.) Gati asserts that the Court erred because he “specifically included [Priddy's] official capacity because he could be entitled to equitable/injunctive relief, ” citing the prayer of his complaint, which included equitable and injunctive relief. (D.N. 46-1, PageID # 859; D.N. 1-1, PageID # 20) Gati also cites an argument he made earlier with respect to equitable or injunctive relief:

Plaintiff could be entitled to equitable/injunctive relief in this matter. For example, if the jury decides Defendants are liable for Plaintiff's worthlessly used GI Bill benefits at WKU, it could award credit hours/classes to Plaintiff to further pursue his education in the future. Other equitable relief that may be sought here is prospective injunctive relief, i.e., making the programs available to disabled students via ITV or online. Since equitable relief is still a possibility in this case, the claims against Defendants in their official capacities should not be dismissed.

(D.N. 46-1, PageID # 859; D.N. 41, PageID # 783)

         The Court's finding that Gati alleged these state-law claims against Priddy seeking damages is supported by Gati's earlier briefing. Within his discussion of the tortious-interference claim, Gati argued that his damages included “lost GI Bill benefits, attorney's fees, and two years of wasted time.” (D.N. 41, PageID # 791-93) While discussing his promissory-estoppel and fraud claims, Gati again stated that his damages included “two years of [wasted] time, GI Bill benefits, and attorneys' fees/costs.” (Id., PageID # 793-95) Gati did, however, mention the possibility of equitable or injunctive relief in his complaint and elsewhere in his summary-judgment briefing. (See D.N. 1-1; D.N. 41, PageID # 783) The Court will therefore err on the side of caution and address the merits of these claims to determine whether Rule 59(e) relief is warranted.

         i. Promissory Estoppel

         Gati asserted a promissory-estoppel claim against Priddy, alleging that she made promises to him that she did not keep. (D.N. 1-1) Defendants sought summary judgment on this claim, arguing that Priddy made no promise to Gati that would support a promissory-estoppel claim. (D.N. 38-1, PageID # 724) Gati responded that Priddy promised him that he could complete his program at the Elizabethtown campus, inducing him to enroll in the program only to find out later that Priddy's promises were false. (D.N. 41, PageID # 793)

         “Under Kentucky law, the four elements of promissory estoppel are ‘(1) a promise; (2) which the promisor should reasonably expect to induce action or forbearance on the part of the promise[e]; (3) which does induce such action or forbearance; and (4) injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise.'” Derby City Capital, LLC v. Trinity HR Servs., 949 F.Supp.2d 712, 728 (W.D. Ky. 2013) (quoting Bergman v. Baptist Healthcare Sys., Inc., 344 F.Supp.2d 998, 1003 (W.D. Ky. 2004)). In determining whether injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise, the Court must also consider whether the promisee's reliance was reasonable. See TWB Distribution, LLC v. BBL, Inc., No. 3:08-CV-509-S, 2009 WL 5103604, at *6 (W.D. Ky. Dec. 17, 2009); see also Derby City Capital, 949 F.Supp.2d at 728 (“Additionally, the promisee's reliance on the promise must be justified.”).

         While the parties dispute whether Priddy told Gati that he could complete the entire mental-health counseling program at the Elizabethtown campus (compare D.N. 33-1, PageID # 474, with D.N. 30-1, PageID # 86), it is undisputed that Gati later transferred fifteen of the credits he earned at WKU to Lindsey Wilson College, where he graduated with a mental-health counseling degree. (D.N. 33-2, PageID # 533-34; D.N. 33-1, PageID # 470-71) And although Gati asserts that he had to “start [the program] from the beginning, ” it is also undisputed that his education at Lindsey Wilson was paid for in full by the GI Bill; Gati still paid nothing out of pocket. (D.N. 33-1, PageID # 470-71) And Gati completed the Lindsey Wilson program at a campus near his home. (Id.) The Court finds that the circumstances here do not constitute “the kind of injustice that can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise.” Harris v. Burger King Corp., 993 F.Supp.2d 677, 692 (W.D. Ky. 2014). In any event, it is unclear whether the prospective injunctive relief Gati suggests-an award of credit hours for unspecified future education and program availability for other students at WKU (D.N. 41, PageID # 783)-would even benefit him. See Auto Channel, Inc. v. Speedvision Network, LLC, 144 F.Supp.2d 784, 792 (W.D. Ky. 2001) (finding that plaintiffs had not shown that injustice would be avoided only by enforcement where enforcing promise would give no benefit to plaintiffs). The Court therefore did not clearly err in granting summary judgment to Priddy on this claim.

         ii. Fraud

         Gati also asserted a fraud claim against Priddy, alleging that she made misrepresentations of material fact to him while he was deciding whether to enroll at WKU. (D.N. 1-1) Defendants argued that Gati could not prove fraud because no one at WKU promised Gati that he could complete all of his classes in Elizabethtown. (D.N. 38-1, PageID # 727) In contrast, Gati argued ...


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