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Huang v. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, Pikeville

October 11, 2018


          OPINION & ORDER

          Robert E. Wier United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Jeff Huang, a former student at the University of Pikeville's Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine (KYCOM), brings a host of claims, under numerous theories, against a corporate arm of the Presbyterian Church, [1] his former school (the University of Pikeville), and various past and present University personnel.[2] DE 6 (Amended Complaint).[3] The suit stems from Plaintiff's ill-fated tenure as a med-student, his eventual withdrawal from the school, and the aftermath. As to the Complaint's[4]thirteen pleaded Counts, most are time-barred, several rely on statutes that are not enforceable through a private cause of action, and another is inadequately pleaded. Further, Plaintiff states no claim, of any kind, against the Church Defendant. Accordingly, and for the reasons fully explained below, the Court wholly dismisses eleven Counts and all claims against the Church Defendant.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff alleges violations of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 & 1985 (Counts I, II, & XII), federal mail and wire fraud statutes, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1341 & 1343 (Counts III & IV), RICO's conspiracy prohibition, 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d) (Count V), the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), 20 U.S.C. § 1232g (Count VII), and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d (Count X). Huang also asserts multiple Kentucky-law claims, including: common-law privacy invasion (Count VI), a KRS 164.283 violation (Count IX), breach of contract (Count XI), violations of Article II & III of the Commonwealth's constitution (Count XII), and an untethered Count for punitive damages (Count XIII).

         A. Facts

         Huang bases his claims on the following allegations:[5]

-- In September 2011, Defendant Dunatov (then-Dean of the med school) told another student that Huang was struggling academically, had inadequate grades, and failed to attend a learning skills workshop.
-- Sometime in 2012, Defendant Laurich (then-faculty at the med-school) falsely claimed Plaintiff was asleep in class. When Plaintiff denied the claim, Laurich replied, “Well, your eyes were significantly shut.” Plaintiff and, in Huang's view, other students perceived Laurich's response as intending an aspersion on Plaintiff's East Asian ethnicity.
-- In (approximately) 2013, the University established a “Student Ethics Council” (the SEC) to which it conferred authority over functions previously reserved to University personnel. On October 22, 2013, the SEC president wrote Plaintiff a warning that directed him to enter the classroom using the back entrance if he arrived late for class. The SEC purportedly allowed four Caucasian class members late entry through the front entrance with no adverse consequences.
-- On November 21, 2013, Plaintiff posted a warning about potential campus gang activity on Facebook and stated: “You can guess at their demographic.” On November 25, 2013, the SEC-misquoting Plaintiff as stating “I bet you can guess their demographics”-charged Huang with making a racially-centered, derogatory, and unprofessional comment unbecoming a future doctor. Defendant Dunatov denied Plaintiff's appeal and equated the violation to a prior student's posting of a female patient's genitalia on Facebook.
-- In May 2014, Plaintiff (without reasonable notice or opportunity to prepare) failed a mandatory remedial Internal Medicine exam, purportedly based on eighty PowerPoint packets and a 6, 400-page textbook. Approximately 20% of the exam addressed electrocardiograms-a topic covered in only one PowerPoint packet. The remedial exam did not coincide with the regular semester's instruction content. Based on Plaintiff's failed examination, Defendant Soletz (then-Dean of Promotions and Matriculation) recommended Huang's dismissal from the med school. Defendant Buser (then-Dean of the med school) upheld Soletz's decision on appeal and advised Huang that KYCOM would dismiss him unless he voluntarily withdrew. See DE 6-5 (Pl's Ex. E - Buser's July 25, 2014, letter to Huang). Dean Buser also explained that he would not give Plaintiff a favorable recommendation to any other med school.
-- On a July 25, 2014, phone call, Defendant Buser advised Plaintiff that he had previously assisted a Caucasian student, who failed courses for three straight years at the University's med school, to enroll at another school. Buser claimed that he would not offer Huang similar aid.
-- On August 26, 2014, Plaintiff took the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) level-one exam. See DE 6-7 (Pl's Ex. G). However, COMLEX invalidated Plaintiff's minimal passing score after the Defendant University notified the administering board of Plaintiff's withdrawal. The University permitted one of Huang's Caucasian, but otherwise similarly situated, classmates to take the COMLEX exam four times. The classmate has since graduated from the University's med school.
-- When Plaintiff completed his second year of med school, KYCOM considered Huang and seven of his classmates marginal academically. The University allowed the six Caucasian students in this cadre immediately to repeat their second-year classes; the University notified the other two academically marginal students, Plaintiff and another Taiwanese student, that they would not receive the same opportunity.
-- Beginning in 2012, Plaintiff retained counsel and attempted to resolve his dispute with the University. On July 19, 2012, the University's then-counsel invited Plaintiff's counsel to discuss the issues. A September 14, 2016, letter from the University Defendants' current counsel to Kentucky's Council on Post-Secondary Education (CPE)-responding to Plaintiff's complaint, see DE 16-2-stated the University's denial of forcible withdrawal and discrimination.[6]

         B. Posture

         The Church and University Defendants, separately, pursue dismissal. DE 8 & 10 (Motions). The motions stand fully briefed and ripe for review. DE 12 & 13 (Responses); DE 14 & 16 (Replies); see also DE 11 (University Defendants approving Church Defendant's DE 8 effort). The Church Defendant principally pursues dismissal on the following basis: “Huang's Amended Complaint simply contains no substantive factual allegation concerning the A Corporation that even remotely suggests [it] is liable to Huang for the harms he alleges.” DE 8-1 at 3. The University Defendants argue for dismissal under a variety of theories including statutes of limitations, absence of a private cause of action, and simple inadequate pleading. See generally DE 10. Ultimately, the Court finds the motions well-founded, Plaintiff's responses unavailing, and dismissal of the targeted claims warranted.

         C. Dismissal Standard

         To survive a motion to dismiss, “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, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. However, “a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do[.]” Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1965. Courts “must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept all allegations as true.” Keys v. Humana, Inc., 684 F.3d 605, 608 (6th Cir. 2012). Yet, courts need not accept “legal conclusion[s] couched as [ ] factual allegation[s].” Papasan v. Allain, 106 S.Ct. 2932, 2944 (1986).

         Hinging on Rule 8's minimal standards, Twombly and Iqbal[7] require a plaintiff to “plead facts sufficient to show that her claim has substantive plausibility.” Johnson v. City of Shelby, 135 S.Ct. 346, 347 (2014). Where plaintiffs state “simply, concisely, and directly events that . . . entitle[ ] them to damages, ” the rules require “no more to stave off threshold dismissal for want of an adequate statement[.]” Id.; El-Hallani v. Huntington Nat. Bank, 623 Fed.Appx. 730, 739 (6th Cir. 2015) (“Although Twombly and Iqbal have raised the bar for pleading, it is still low.”).

         Generally, “matters outside of the pleadings are not to be considered by a court in ruling on a . . . motion to dismiss.” Weiner, 108 F.3d. at 88. However, the Court may “consider other materials that are integral to the complaint, are public records, or are otherwise appropriate for the taking of judicial notice.” Ashland, Inc. v. Oppenheimer & Co., 648 F.3d 461, 467 (6th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). While a statute of limitations defense often is not appropriate for consideration as part of a 12(b)(6) motion, such defense may prevail “where the allegations of the complaint itself set forth everything necessary to satisfy the affirmative defense, such as when a complaint plainly reveals that an action is untimely.” Andonissamy v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 547 F.3d 841, 847 (7th Cir. 2008); Marsh v. Genentech, Inc., 693 F.3d 546, 554-55 (6th Cir. 2012) (“A motion to dismiss can be premised on an affirmative defense . . . if ‘the plaintiff's own allegations show that a defense exists that legally defeats the claim for relief.'” (internal citation omitted)).


         At the dismissal stage, the Court accepts as true that the Church Defendant is in some way “affiliated” with the Defendant University. Defendant's motion-stated contrary factual claims are, thus, irrelevant to the Court's 12(b)(6) analysis.[8] On the other hand, the “affiliation” contention is the only material factual allegation Plaintiff directs to the Church Defendant. [Indeed, Plaintiff does not individually depict the Church as a party. See DE 6 at ¶¶ 5-13.] Huang's bare claim of “affiliation” states no plausible entitlement to relief, under any pleaded theory, against the Church Defendant. Thus, the Court dismisses the Plaintiff's claims as to that entity under Rule 12(b)(6).

         Plaintiff contends that “in many instances the terms ‘affiliate' and ‘affiliated' describe a corporate connection that is legally cognizable[.]” DE 13 at 7. True enough, as a general proposition. However, Huang's definitional theory ultimately offers him no aid. Plaintiff's argument, at most, establishes the possibility that circumstances could theoretically confer meaning on the term “affiliated” to make a legally significant connection. Yet, Huang entirely fails to connect that bare prospect to the reality of his Complaint, i.e., he does not explain how the pleaded “affiliation” allegation supports or implies an actionable claim against the Church Defendant. Cunningham v. Kondaur Capital, No. 3:14-1574, 2014 WL 8335868, at *7 (M.D. Tenn. Nov. 19, 2014), report and recommendation approved, No. 3:14-CV-01574, 2015 WL 1412737 (M.D. Tenn. Mar. 26, 2015) (“[T]he mere possibility that a defendant may be vicariously liable is not sufficient to state a claim for relief, and pleading facts that are merely consistent with liability is not enough.”).

         Undoubtedly, the University could be “affiliated” (under one of the many available interpretations of that amorphous term) with a great many organizations. But all such “affiliates” are not, merely by associating with the Defendant in any recognizable form, subject to vicarious liability for alleged University wrongs. Vicarious liability is a defined legal doctrine applicable only under specific circumstances, none of which are, here, pleaded. [For instance, the Complaint alleges no plausible basis for an agency finding under any recognized theory. See, e.g., Restatement (Third) Agency § 1.01 (2006) (defining “Agency”); id. at § 2.03 (“Apparent Authority”); id. at § 4.01 (defining “Ratification”).] Stated otherwise, Plaintiff identifies no mechanism for holding the Church Defendant, affiliated or not, liable for any other Defendant's purported misdeeds.

         To survive dismissal, a complaint must “contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all material elements necessary for recovery under a viable legal theory.” D'Ambrosio v. Marino, 747 F.3d 378, 383 (6th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). Plaintiff's factual allegations needed to “do more than create speculation or suspicion of a legally cognizable cause of action; they [needed to] show entitlement to relief.” League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Bredesen, 500 F.3d 523, 527 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1965) (emphasis in original). Again, the Complaint mentions no agency or vicarious liability theory, and alleges no direct Church involvement.[9] In short, Plaintiff entirely failed to state any claim against the Church Defendant.

         A company could be affiliated by ownership, governance, control, contract, or by custom or operation of law. Some affiliations could implicate agency; most certainly would not. The Court can plausibly glean nothing from the naked alleged affiliation, which has no independent, determinative meaning in the context of imputed or vicarious liability.[10]


         A. Statutes of Limitations

         Seven of Plaintiff's claims are facially untimely. Neither collateral estoppel nor the continuing violation doctrine save the tardy claims. Accordingly, the Court dismisses Counts I, II, VI, VIII, IX, X, and XII.[11]

         The parties do not dispute the applicable limitations periods. For § 1983 and Title VI claims, federal courts borrow forum states' personal injury statutes of limitation. See Wilson v. Garcia, 105 S.Ct. 1938, 1949 (1985) (Section 1983); Lillard v. Shelby Cty. Bd. of Educ., 76 F.3d 716, 729 (6th Cir. 1996) (“Indeed, all of the circuits deciding the [limitations period for Title VI claims] have uniformly applied the state personal injury limitations period.” (internal citations omitted)). Here, the relevant statute surely is the one-year limitation period provided by KRS 413.140. Ham v. Marshall Cty., Ky., No. 5:11-CV-11, 2012 WL 5930148, at *3 (W.D. Ky. Nov. 27, 2012) (citing Collard v. Ky. Bd. of Nursing, 896 F.2d 179, 182 (6th Cir. 1990)) (Section 1983); Smith v. Spalding Univ., No. 3:15-CV-00595-GNS, 2016 WL 3748522, at *2 (W.D. Ky. July 8, 2016) (Title VI). Kentucky law required Plaintiff to “commence[ ]” his (Count I, Count X & Count XII[12]) civil rights claims “within one (1) year after the cause[s] of action accrued[.]” KRS 413.140(1)(a) & (c). A one-year limit also applies to Plaintiff's § 1985 claim (Count II):

KRS 413.120(1) imposes a one-year statute of limitations for personal injury suits in Kentucky. For a 42 U.S.C. § 1985 action, a court “must look to the most analogous statute of limitations of the state in which the cause of action arose.” Bedford [v. Univ. of Louisville Sch. of Med., 887 F.2d 1086, 1086] (6th Cir.1989). Kentucky's one-year statute of limitations for conspiracies, KRS 413.140(1)(c), applies to 42 U.S.C. § 1985 actions because it is most analogous to the § 1985 actions. Id.

Eubank v. Collins, No. CIV.A. 11-326-C, 2012 WL 245234, at *1 (W.D. Ky. Jan. 26, 2012).

         Defendants assumed, and Plaintiff did not dispute, that the common-law privacy breach (Count VI) claim triggers by Kentucky's catch-all 5-year statute of limitations. DE 10 at 13; see KRS 413.120(b) (requiring commencement within five years for “[a]n action for an injury to the rights of the plaintiff, not arising on contract and not otherwise enumerated”). The Court, for now, accepts the parties' operating assumption.[13] The IIED (Count VIII) and KRS 164.283 claims (Count IX)[14] also carry 5-year limitations periods. Craft v. Rice, 671 S.W.2d 247, 251 (Ky. 1984) (“There is a right to be free of emotional distress arising from conduct by another. Because the essence of the tort is the interference with this right and not whether any bodily harm results, the five-year statute of limitations applies.”); KRS 413.120(2) (requiring commencement within five years for “[a]n action upon a liability created by statute, when no other time is fixed by the statute creating the liability.”).

         1. Counts I, II, X, and XII

         Plaintiff's civil-rights based (42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, 2000d) claims facially fail as time barred by the applicable one-year statutes of limitations. The alleged factual bases for Counts I, II, X, and XII occurred prior to September 14, ...

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