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Ryan v. Blackwell

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

November 18, 2019

BUCK RYAN, Plaintiff,
v.
DAVID BLACKWELL, JOSEPH REED, DEREK LANE, and MIKE FARRELL, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          KAREN K. CALDWELL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint. Plaintiff Buck Ryan brought suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his constitutional rights; he also alleges violations of state law. (DE 1.) Defendants David Blackwell, Joseph Reed, Derek Lane, and Mike Farrell filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). (DE 7.) For the reasons stated below, the Court grants Defendants' motion.

         Background

         Plaintiff is a tenured member of the University of Kentucky faculty. (DE 1 at 1.) Sometime on or after April 30, 2018, Defendant Farrell, Interim Director of UK's School of Journalism and Media, and Dan O'Hair, then-dean of UK's College of Communication and Information, presented Plaintiff with an audit report produced by UK's General Counsel's office. (DE 1 at 1-2.) At the request of that office, Defendant Reed, an auditor for UK, conducted an investigation that culminated in this report and focused primarily on Plaintiff's use of his book Writing Baby, Editing Dog and You: A Friendly Place to Begin Improving Your Writing (“Writing Baby”) in his courses. (DE 1 at 5-6.) The report claimed that Plaintiff profited more than $6, 000 from using Writing Baby in his courses. (DE 1 at 6.) Plaintiff responded to Defendant Farrell and Dr. O'Hair with a letter discussing the report's faults, its purportedly false and defamatory statements, and requesting that the report be voided. (DE 1 at 7.)

         At a subsequent meeting, Dr. O'Hair demanded that Plaintiff resign his position, citing the report; although, the report did not recommend that Plaintiff resign. (DE 1 at 2, 7.) When Plaintiff refused, Defendant Blackwell, UK's provost, initiated administrative proceedings to terminate him. (DE 1 at 2, 7.) Defendant Blackwell also issued an allegedly false press release about Plaintiff, claiming that he had used university resources to steal from students. (DE 1 at 2.) In August 2018, UK's Senate Advisory Committee on Privilege and Tenure recommended that the termination proceedings be dropped. (DE 1 at 2-3, 8.) Plaintiff later publicly challenged Defendant Blackwell and UK president Eli Capilouto's purportedly baseless attempt to fire him; in response, Defendant Lane, Interim Dean of UK's College of Communication and Information, and Defendant Farrell allegedly retaliated against Plaintiff by making false and defamatory claims, removing his teaching responsibilities, and constructively discharging him from the faculty. (DE 1 at 3.) Plaintiff describes this series of conduct as efforts to coerce him to resign. (DE 1 at 14.)

         Plaintiff filed suit in this Court on April 29, 2019. (DE 1.) The complaint alleges four counts of violations of federal or state law. First, Defendant Blackwell's statement was unconstitutional retaliation against Plaintiff for having asserted his due process rights. (DE 1 at 11-12.) Second, Defendant Blackwell's statement constitutes defamation. (DE 1 at 12.) Third, the audit report constitutes defamation and wrongly casts Plaintiff in a false light. (DE 1 at 12-13.) Finally, the efforts to coerce Plaintiff to resign were unconstitutional retaliation against Plaintiff for having asserted his rights to freedom of speech and due process. (DE 1 at 13-14.) Defendants filed their motion to dismiss on May 24, 2019. (DE 7.) Defendants argue that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and, regardless, Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. (DE 7 at 10.) Defendants also argue that, if Plaintiff's federal law claims are dismissed, the Court should decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over his state law claims. (DE 7 at 10.) Finally, all Defendants argue that even if the Court exercises supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state law claims, he has failed to state a claim against Defendants Reed or Blackwell. (DE 7 at 10.)

         Analysis

         I. Standard

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the complaint must assert sufficient facts to provide the defendant with “fair notice of what the… claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A complaint must also “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, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). “A complaint should be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) only if there is no law to support the claims, if the alleged facts are insufficient to state a claim, or if on the face of the complaint there is an insurmountable bar to relief.” Browning v. Pennerton, 633 F.Supp.2d 415, 429 (E.D. Ky. Jun. 22, 2009) (citing Rauch v. Day & Night Mfg. Corp., 576 F.2d 697 (6th Cir. 1978)). “When considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and must draw inferences in a light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Drain v. Nicholson, No. 1:07-cv-690, 2008 WL 123881, at *1 (S.D. Ohio Jan. 10, 2008). “However, the Court need not accept as true legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations if those conclusions cannot be plausibly drawn from the facts, as alleged.” O'Hair v. Winchester Police Dep't, No. 5:15-cv-097-DCR, 2015 WL 4507181, at *2 (E.D. Ky. July 23, 2015).

         II. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Claims

         42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides “a vehicle for a plaintiff to obtain damages for violations of the Constitution or a federal statute.” Boler v. Earley, 865 F.3d 391, 401 (6th Cir. 2017). Under the law -

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress....

42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff appears to allege multiple claims under § 1983, arguing that Defendants retaliated against him for having exercised his constitutional rights. “It is well established that government actions, which standing alone do not violate the Constitution, may nonetheless be constitutional torts if motivated in substantial part by a desire to punish an individual for exercise of a constitutional right.”[1] Thaddeus-X v. Blatter, 175 F.3d 378, 386 (6th Cir. 1999). Plaintiff alleges that the following actions were all constitutional torts, taken in retaliation against him: the administrative proceedings to terminate his employment; Defendant Blackwell's public statement; and the efforts to coerce him to resign, including changes to his employment conditions. (DE 1.)

         Three elements form the “essence” of retaliation claims: “the plaintiff engaged in conduct protected by the Constitution or by statute, the defendant took an adverse action against the plaintiff, and this adverse action was taken (at least in part) because of the protected conduct.” Thaddeus-X, 175 F.3d at 386-87. Applying this standard, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to state any retaliation claims.

         A. ...


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