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Morris v. Murray State University

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

June 21, 2019

GARY MORRIS PLAINTIFF
v.
MURRAY STATE UNIVERSITY; AND TRACEY WORTHAM DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge United States District Court

         This matter is before the Court upon motion by Defendants, Murray State University (“MSU”) and Tracey Wortham, to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (DN 7). Plaintiff, Gary Morris, has filed his response. (DN 9). This matter is ripe for review and for the following reasons, Defendants' motion to dismiss is GRANTED.

         Background

         The factual allegations as set out in the Complaint (DN 1), and taken as true, are as follows.[1]Defendant MSU hired Plaintiff as an Assistant Professor in August of 2011. (DN 1 at 3). In the following years, Plaintiff received a grant, published research in scholarly journals, received the Emerging Scholar award from MSU, developed two Study Abroad Programs for the Occupational Safety and Health Department, and was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure. Id. MSU promoted Plaintiff to Chair of the Safety Department. Id. at 4. In July of 2015, Plaintiff went to work for the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (The “Board”). Id. Apparently, Plaintiff relinquished his position as Department Chair when he went to work for the Board. Defendant Tracey Wortham replaced Plaintiff as Department Chair. Id. In August 2015, Plaintiff had a disagreement at a board meeting with the CEO of the Board. Because of this disagreement, Plaintiff met with Murray Dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology Steve Cobb and requested they pull his resignation letter and allow him to remain employed with MSU. Id. Although Plaintiff was allowed to continue working as an Associate Professor with tenure at MSU, Wortham remained Department Chair. Id.

         The issues between Plaintiff and Defendants began in October 2015, when three complaints were filed against Plaintiff with MSU's Individual Diversity, Equity and Access (“IDEA”) office. Id. at 4-5. Because of the complaints, IDEA asked Plaintiff not to attend the upcoming Future Safety Leader Conference in Chicago with his students. Id. at 5. Students who had been contacted in the course of the IDEA investigation called and complained to Plaintiff that they were being asked leading questions regarding alleged financial and behavioral problems of Plaintiff. Id. Then, in December 2015, IDEA informed Plaintiff that he was being removed from the Study Abroad Program. Id. at 6. Another Professor, Dr. Keller, replaced him in the Program. Id. The investigation continued in the following months and more students communicated to Plaintiff that they were being asked leading questions about Plaintiff's behavior and financial decisions. Id. at 6-7. Dr. Keller informed one student that Plaintiff was being fired for financial misconduct, that the Department did not like Plaintiff, and that the Department wanted to rehire “Dr. Wells.” Id. at 7.

         In February of 2016, Plaintiff was excluded from faculty birthday celebrations and his research that was displayed in the college was taken down. Id. Plaintiff was also excluded from meetings and department functions. Id. In May 2016, Defendant Wortham began sending emails to Plaintiff and Dean Cobb about student complaints and missing accreditation documents. Id. When Plaintiff met with Dean Cobb to discuss the emails, Plaintiff learned that he had been accused by an unnamed faculty member of being a “sexual predator” and having a “drinking problem.” Id. at 8. About five months later, Dean Cobb informed Plaintiff that Wortham had told the IDEA president that Plaintiff was “still acting up.” Id. Dean Cobb arranged a meeting between Plaintiff and Wortham to attempt to resolve the differences between them. Id.

         In November 2016, Dean Cobb instructed Plaintiff again not to attend the Future Safety Leader Conference (“FSLC”) in Chicago with his students. Id. at 8-9. Later that month, a student informed Plaintiff that the student had asked Wortham if Plaintiff was still the Department Chair and Wortham had responded, “no, we have decided to do things more professionally now.” Id. at 9.

         About a year later, in September 2017, Plaintiff invited a student to take an exam at Plaintiff's home. Id. Wortham learned of this offer and then began “stirring the pot” with Defendant MSU. Id. at 10. Sometime later, Dean Cobb and MSU's provost instructed Plaintiff to quit inviting students to his home for exams. Id. Plaintiff alleges that it is not against policy to invite students to the home of a professor to take an exam. Id.

         Over the next five months, Plaintiff was excluded from receiving academic desk calendars, avoided by other faculty members, and avoided by former graduate assistants. Id. at 10-12. Furthermore, Plaintiff alleges that Wortham asked other faculty members if they could go on the trip to Chicago because Plaintiff “needed a chaperone, ” denied Plaintiff funding for a presentation at a national convention, and prevented him from giving the presentation. Id. at 11-12. Finally, Plaintiff alleges that he has not been given annual evaluations since 2015 and has not been promoted to Full Professor. Id. at 11. Throughout the course of these events, Plaintiff repeatedly complained to University officials. Plaintiff claims that no action was taken in response to his complaints.

         In April 2018, Plaintiff filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) Complaint against MSU. On or about July 24, 2018, the EEOC issued Plaintiff a “Right to Sue Letter.” In the complaint he has filed with this Court, Plaintiff claims that MSU and Wortham are liable to him for denial of due process, age discrimination, racial discrimination, sex discrimination, hostile work environment, retaliation, breach of contract, tortious interference, defamation, and punitive damages. Id. at 12-17.

         Legal Standard

         In a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), “[t]he defendant has the burden of showing that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim for relief.” Directv, Inc. v. Treesh, 487 F.3d 471, 476 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing Carver v. Bunch, 946 F.2d 451, 454-55 (6th Cir. 1991)). A complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). In order to survive a motion to dismiss under Civil Rule 12(b)(6), a party must "plead enough factual matter to raise a 'plausible' inference of wrongdoing." 16630 Southfield Ltd. P'ship v. Flagstar Bank, F.S.B., 727 F.3d 502, 504 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009)). A claim becomes plausible "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). Should the well-pleaded facts support no "more than the mere possibility of misconduct," then dismissal is warranted. Id. at 679. The Court may grant a motion to dismiss "only if, after drawing all reasonable inferences from the allegations in the complaint in favor of the plaintiff, the complaint still fails to allege a plausible theory of relief." Garceau v. City of Flint, 572 Fed.Appx. 369, 371 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 677-79).

         Discussion

         Plaintiff brings ten counts alleging violations of federal and state law against Murray State University and Director Tracey Wortham. Although the parties do not discuss whether these claims are brought against Wortham in her official or individual capacity, the Court will address all ten counts in both capacities.

         (A) Claims against Murray State University and Wortham in her official capacity.

         Defendants argue that each of Plaintiff's claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment and therefore must be dismissed. The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution provides:

The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against on of the United States by Citizens of another State, or ...

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