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Quarrie v. Wells

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 22, 2018

LINDSAY O'BRIEN QUARRIE, Plaintiff,
v.
STEPHEN WELLS, et al., Defendants.

          PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

          GREGORY B. WORMUTH, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint brought by the Board of Regents of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Lorie Liebrock, Daniel Lopez, Warren Ostergren, Kevin Wedeward, and Stephen Wells (“NMT Defendants”) (doc. 76), the Updated Motion to Dismiss brought by SaucedoChavez, P.C. and Christopher Saucedo (“Saucedo Defendants”) (doc. 78), and the attendant briefing (docs. 79, 80, 81, 83). Having reviewed the Motions and applicable law, I RECOMMEND that the Court GRANT Saucedo Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. Further, I RECOMMEND that the Court GRANT NMT Defendants' Motion to Dismiss as it pertains to Counts I, II, IV, and the Count V request for injunctive relief against defamation, but DENY the Motion as it pertains to the Count V request for injunctive relief against racial discrimination.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff initiated the current suit on March 20, 2017. Doc. 1. He later amended his complaint on April 6, 2017 (doc. 15) and again on February 14, 2018 (doc. 75). The currently operative complaint in this action, the Second Amended Complaint, alleges claims against NMT Defendants and Saucedo Defendants that Plaintiff has been defamed and wrongfully denied readmission into NMT's PhD program. Doc. 75. He asserts five counts against various defendants:

(I) A constitutional slander-based defamation claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants Lopez, Ostergren, Wedeward, Saucedo, and SaucedoChavez P.C. in their individual capacities;
(II) A constitutional libel-based defamation claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendant Wells in his individual capacity;
(III) Racial discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against the Board of Regents of NMT;
(IV) Unconstitutional deprivation of a property right under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants Liebrock and Wells; and
(V) Request for a permanent injunction under Ex parte Young against Defendants Wells, Liebrock, and Board of Regents of NMT to prohibit them from preventing Plaintiff's reinstatement into the PhD program; and against Defendants Lopez, Wells, Ostergren, Wedward, Saucedo, and SaucedoChavez, P.C. to prohibit them from making “false and misleading statements” about Plaintiff.

Id. at 19-24. Saucedo Defendants are named only in Counts I and V and have moved to dismiss all claims against them (doc. 78). NMT Defendants have moved to dismiss Counts I, II, IV, and V. Doc. 76. The only claim not targeted by the pending motions is Count III (Title VI racial discrimination), and I accordingly do not analyze its viability. Both Motions to Dismiss are now before me pursuant to the Court's Order of Reference. Doc. 85.

         Notably, this is not Plaintiff's first suit involving the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. In an earlier action (“Quarrie I”) commenced on April 12, 2013, Plaintiff sued the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Lorie Liebrock, and Daniel Lopez, along with several other defendants not named in the current complaint, in connection with his allegedly wrongful expulsion from the PhD program. See Quarrie v. New Mexico Inst. of Mining & Tech., et al., No. 13-cv-0349 MV/SMV, 2014 WL 11456614 (D.N.M. Jan. 6, 2015). This earlier case was dismissed with prejudice on January 6, 2015, due to Plaintiff's failure to pay court-ordered expenses and his filing of numerous frivolous motions objecting to the order. Id. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal based on Plaintiff's failure to comply with the District Court's expenses order. Quarrie v. New Mexico Inst. of Mining & Tech., et al., 621 Fed.Appx. 928, 934 (10th Cir. 2015). To the extent that any of the claims in the instant action involve already- litigated issues, they are, of course, precluded.[1]

         II. Standard of Review

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a Court will dismiss a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Specifically, a complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). In assessing whether a complaint meets this standard, the Court is to first “identify[] pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. at 679. Then, accepting only the well-pleaded factual allegations as true and viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court is to consider whether “they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Barrett v. Orman, 373 Fed.Appx. 823, 825 (10th Cir. 2010) (unpublished) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 677-78); Casanova v. Ulibarri, 595 F.3d 1120, 1125 (10th Cir. 2010). “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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         Where, as here, a party is proceeding pro se, the court is to liberally construe his pleadings. Casanova, 595 F.3d at 1125. “But the court [is] not [to] ‘assume the role of advocate for the pro se litigant.'” Baker v. Holt, 498 Fed.Appx. 770, 772 (10th Cir. 2012) (unpublished) (quoting Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991)). In other words, “[t]he broad reading of the plaintiff's complaint does not relieve the plaintiff of the burden of alleging sufficient facts on which a recognized legal claim could be based.” Hall, 935 F.2d at 1110.

         III. Analysis

         A. Defamation Claims Against NMT Defendants (Counts I & II) [2]

         1. Parties' Positions as to Counts I & II.

         In Count I of his Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff makes a claim of “malicious and conspiratorial defamation by slander” against NMT Defendants Lopez, Ostergren, and Wedeward in their individual capacities. Doc. 75 at 19. He alleges that the aforementioned defendants slandered him personally and professionally during a June 28, 2016 meeting at NMT. Id. In Count II, Plaintiff makes a claim of “malicious and conspiratorial defamation by libel” against Defendant Wells based on a September 13, 2016 letter to Sheryl Stapleton of the New Mexico House of Representatives. Id. at 20-21. The legal basis for both claims is a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, enforceable through 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. at 19- 21. Plaintiff asserts that Defendants' defamation has deprived him of (1) his “constitutionally guaranteed liberty of good name and reputation” and (2) his “constitutionally protected educational property right, as well as the opportunity, employment, and income that immediately issue therefrom.” Id.

         NMT Defendants have moved to dismiss Counts I and II. Doc. 76. NMT Defendants argue that there is no constitutional property right to admission into a PhD program, (id. at 6-7), and that even if Plaintiff did have such a property right, there has been no deprivation (id. at 8-10). They further argue that Plaintiff cannot show deprivation of a liberty interest in his reputation because the alleged defamation did not occur in the course of his termination from the PhD program. Id. at 10-11.

         2. Plaintiff alleges no constitutional violation by NMT Defendants sufficient to support a § 1983 defamation claim.

         42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides a cause of action for individuals whose federal rights have been violated by defendants acting “under color” of state law. In order to succeed, the § 1983 plaintiff must show that (1) he was deprived of a right secured by the U.S. Constitution or federal law, and (2) the defendant was acting under color of state law. Johnson v. Rodriguez, 293 F.3d 1196, 1201-02 (10th Cir. 2002) (quoting Flagg Bros., Inc. v. Brooks, 436 U.S. 149, 155 (1978)).

         An individual's conduct constitutes state action if it satisfies the following two- part test:

First, the deprivation must be caused by the exercise of some right or privilege created by the State or by a rule of conduct imposed by the state or by a person for whom the State is responsible…. Second, the party charged with the deprivation must be a person who may fairly be said to be a state actor.

Johnson, 293 F.3d at 1202 (quoting Lugar v. Edmonson Oil Co., Inc., 457 U.S. 922, 937 (1982)). As a general rule, “a public employee acts under color of state law while acting in his official capacity or while exercising his responsibilities pursuant to state law.” West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 50 (1988); see also Lugar, 457 U.S. at 936 n.18 (“state employment is generally sufficient to render the defendant a state actor”).[3] While state universities enjoy Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit under § 1983, Cunningham v. Univ. of N.M. Bd. of Regents, 531 Fed.Appx. 909, 914-15 (10th Cir. 2013), employees of state universities may be sued for constitutional violations committed in their individual capacities as long as they acted under color of law, Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 30-31 (1991). See, e.g., Wrenn v. Kansas, 561 F.Supp. 1216, 1220 (D. Kan. 1983).

         As a preliminary matter, Defendants must have been acting under color of law in order for Plaintiff's § 1983 claims to succeed. On Counts I and II, Plaintiff sues all defendants in their individual capacities. Defendants Ostergren, Wedeward, and Wells are current employees of NMT, a public state university. Doc. 75 at 2. Defendant Lopez is a former NMT employee, and was employed by NMT at the time of the June 28, 2016 meeting. Doc. 75 at 2, 12. Because all NMT Defendants were presumably acting within the scope of their employment responsibilities by attending the meeting and, in Defendant Wells' case, by writing the September 13, 2016 letter to Representative Stapleton, they appear to have been acting under color of state law and are therefore appropriate § 1983 defendants in their individual capacities.

         The other essential component of a § 1983 action is a deprivation of rights conferred by federal law. Defamation is not ordinarily a federal constitutional cause of action. See Siegert v. Gilley, 500 U.S. 226, 233 (1991) (“Defamation, by itself, is a tort actionable under the laws of most States, but not a constitutional deprivation.”). Plaintiff contends, however, that because Defendants' alleged defamation deprived him of several constitutionally protected rights, it rises to the level of a federal constitutional claim. Specifically, he claims Defendants deprived him of the following: (1) the “constitutionally guaranteed liberty of good name and reputation, ...


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