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Kyrkanides v. University of Kentucky

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

November 19, 2019

STEPHANOS KYRKANIDES, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Robert E. Wier, United States District Judge.

         The Court addresses two pending motions: Defendants' dismissal effort (DE #9) and Plaintiff's request to again amend the Complaint (DE #10). Because the sought amendment as to Plaintiff's only federal claim would be futile, the Court rejects the attempt and dismisses the claim. Under the circumstances, as explained, the Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's asserted state claims and, thus, denies as moot the amendment request as to those (here dismissed) claims.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Dr. Stephanos Kyrkanides-former Dean of the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry (“UKCOD”)-accuses UK and current UK Provost David A. Blackwell of terminating[1] him in violation of several state laws and without affording him due process. DE #4 (Amended Complaint).[2] Kyrkanides was appointed as Dean of the UKCOD on June 17, 2015 and served in the position until January 16, 2019. Id. at ¶¶ 1, 25. Per Kyrkanides's employment agreement, see DE #10-18, [3] the position “include[d] a faculty appointment as Professor, with tenure, in the Division of Orthodontics in the Department of Oral Health Science.” Id. at 1. The agreement further provided that Kyrkanides would “serve at the discretion of the Provost for an initial period of six years.” Id. Plaintiff indicated, via his signature on the document, that he accepted the appointment and understood its conditions, as outlined in the agreement. Id. at 2.

         As a general matter, Kyrkanides avers-under state law theories-that the College terminated him in retaliation for three activities: (1) reporting and seeking to discontinue faculty misuse of funds; (2) exploring employee theft of harvested gold crowns; and (3) supporting investigation into perceived illegal discrimination at the UKCOD. See DE #4 at ¶¶ 9, 33, 44, 54. As to the first class of allegations, Plaintiff asserts that UK Healthcare's Associate General Counsel Cliff Iler confirmed to him that the UKCOD was paying faculty salary supplements out of compliance with University regulations. Id. at ¶ 11-12. Kyrkanides discovered that, as a result, the UKCOD incurred a substantial deficit. Id. at ¶ 13. He alleges that his subsequent attempts to address the salary supplement issue with faculty and administrators drew hostility. He claims lack of support from the Provost. Id. at ¶¶ 14-24. Kyrkanides maintains that he otherwise consistently received praise from the UKCOD, including Provost Blackwell, for his job performance. Plaintiff thus attributes the abrupt January 2019 termination (at least in part) to his unpopular fund misuse correction efforts. Id. at ¶¶ 26-31.

         The second alleged demotion basis stems from Kyrkanides's concern that UKCOD clinical employees were “stealing gold crowns and either selling them on the secondary market to purchase gifts for their own families, or converting them to gold coins and taking them home.” Id. at ¶ 34. Plaintiff, considering this violative of UKCOD rules or law, sought to stop the theft but received little administrative support in doing so. Id. He alleges that Human Resources ultimately informed him (on January 15, 2019) that prevalence of the theft made it impossible to address and, despite reaching out to the Provost for assistance, he encountered refusal. Id. at ¶ 36. Kyrkanides, (apparently based on this interaction's temporal proximity to his January 16 termination) surmises that the UKCOD retaliated against him for reporting the theft issues.

         Finally, Plaintiff contends that the demotion in part resulted from his efforts to address alleged UKCOD discrimination against minority students. After “underrepresented minority students in the College of Dentistry and a recent graduate of the College of Dentistry complained to the Plaintiff about discriminatory experiences in their interactions with some dental faculty members[, ]” Kyrkanides sought Blackwell's support. Id. at ¶ 44-47. When he did not receive it, Plaintiff endeavored to address the perceived discrimination issues without Provost support. Id. at ¶ 52. Upon backlash from Blackwell, Kyrkanides filed a September 2018 formal complaint against UK “alleging that he was being harassed by Provost Blackwell[.]” Id. at ¶ 54. UK's investigation into the harassment matter concluded, per Kyrkanides, on January 15, 2019. Id. Plaintiff claims that his involvement in the three investigations prompted retaliatory demotion on January 16, 2019. Id. at ¶¶ 55-56.

         Plaintiff initiated this case in March 2019, [4] see DE #1, and soon amended the Complaint as of right per Rule 15, see DE #4. The Amended Complaint includes three state law claims (retaliation based on the fund misuse efforts, retaliation based on the crown theft report, and retaliation based on Kyrkanides's involvement in the discrimination and harassment investigations), as well as one federal Fourteenth Amendment due process claim. Plaintiff, as grounds for the due process claim, avers that the UKCOD deprived him of a protected property interest in the deanship without affording him adequate process. Id. at ¶¶ 58-59. Kyrkanides also alleges that, by demoting him, the University unlawfully deprived him of a liberty interest in reputation. See Id. at ¶ 60 (“In addition, Plaintiff's good name, honor, and integrity has been harmed.”). Kyrkanides seeks reinstatement as Dean and an order enjoining further retaliation against him. Id. at 16, ¶¶ (a)-(b). He further demands a court order requiring the “state” to investigate certain perceived regulatory violations. Id. at 16, ¶ (c). Lastly, as monetary relief, Plaintiff pursues lost wages, benefits, and grant funds, $7.5 million for embarrassment and humiliation, and $10 million in punitive damages. Id. at 16, ¶¶ (d)-(k).

         In April 2019, Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint, without seeking leave to do so, DE #7, and the Court struck the Rule 15-violative filing, see DE #8. Defendants moved to dismiss (all claims) roughly a month after these events. DE #9. Plaintiff then sought leave to amend the Complaint a second time five days later. DE #10. The proposed Second Amended Complaint (DE #10-2) adds (only slight) detail to some of Plaintiff's allegations, injects two new parties (UK General Counsel William Thro and UK Chief of Staff Bill Swinford), and alleges a new state claim for breach of Plaintiff's employment contract. Both the dismissal motion and amendment request are fully briefed and ripe for decision. See DE ##12, 13, 14, 15.

         II. Amendment and Dismissal Standards

         Rule 15 permits pleading amendment once as a matter of course, subject to certain limitations. Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(1). Kyrkanides took advantage of that opportunity here. “In all other cases, ” though, “a party may amend its pleading only with the opposing party's written consent or the court's leave.” Id. at (a)(2). In such instances, “[t]he court should freely give leave when justice so requires.” Id. Rule 15 thus sets a relatively low amendment justification bar. See Moore v. City of Paducah, 790 F.2d 557, 562 (6th Cir. 1986) (noting Rule 15's “liberality in allowing amendments to a complaint”); see also Janikowski v. Bendix Corp., 823 F.2d 945, 951 (6th Cir. 1987) (quoting Teft v. Seward, 689 F.2d 637, 639 (6th Cir. 1982)) (“The thrust of the provision ‘is to reinforce the principle that cases should be tried on the merits rather than on the technicalities of pleadings.'”).

         The Rule's liberality, though, is bounded; some considerations weighing against amendment include “undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed, undue prejudice to the opposing party by virtue of allowance of the amendment, [and] futility of the amendment[.]” Leary v. Daeschner, 349 F.3d 888, 905 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting Foman v. Davis, 83 S.Ct. 227, 230 (1962)). Ultimately, “leave to amend remains within the sound discretion of the trial court[.]” Id. “A proposed amendment is futile if the amendment could not withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.” Rose v. Hartford Underwriters Ins. Co., 203 F.3d 417, 420 (6th Cir. 2000) (citing Thiokol Corp. v. Department of Treasury, State of Michigan, Revenue Div., 987 F.2d 376, 382-83 (6th Cir. 1993)); accord Riverview Health Inst. LLC v. Med. Mut. of Ohio, 601 F.3d 505, 512 (6th Cir. 2010); Kreipke v. Wayne State Univ., 807 F.3d 768, 782 (6th Cir. 2015). This case thus sits at the intersection of Rules 15 and 12(b)(6).

         Dismissal is appropriate to the extent a complaint “fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The 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 deciding a Rule 12 motion, “the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, the allegations in the complaint are accepted as true, and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of plaintiffs.” Nwanguma v. Trump, 903 F.3d 604, 607 (6th Cir. 2018) (citing Bassett, 528 F.3d at 430). However, the Court is not required to accept as true “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation[.]” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007). Rule 12(b)(6) survival “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action[.]” Id. Rule 8 “does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009).

         Hinging on Rule 8's minimal standards, Twombly and Iqbal 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). The factual allegations collectively must “raise a right to relief above the speculative level[, ]” id., and “state a claim that is plausible on its face, i.e., the court must be able to draw a ‘reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'” Nwanguma, 903 F.3d at 607 (quoting Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citation omitted)). This “plausibility standard” does not require a showing that success on the claims is probable, “but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. Where plaintiffs state “simply, concisely, and directly events that . . . entitled them to damages, ” the rules require “no more to stave off ...


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