LEWIS A. KAPLAN, District Judge.
This case calls upon the Court to revisit a field that, for the most part, has lain fallow since the era of widespread campus unrest that attended the Vietnam war -- the circumstances in which the actions of a private educational institution amount to state action for purposes of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Constitution, albeit in the context of personnel action taken with respect to a faculty member rather than disciplinary action taken against allegedly disruptive students.
Plaintiff, a professor of medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, claims that he has been constructively discharged by Mount Sinai and that the school has violated his rights under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments in addition to federal statutes and state law. The defendants just as stoutly maintain that the federal claims all are without merit because, among other reasons, Mount Sinai is not a state actor and that the pendent state law claims also should be dismissed.
As will appear in greater detail below, the complaint asserts broadly that the Mount Sinai School of Medicine ("Mount Sinai")
cut plaintiff's salary substantially and otherwise subjected him to harassment, all in violation of his First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985(3), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA") and principles of contract law. Plaintiff proceeds on the theory that Mount Sinai "is part of the New York City University system . . ."
This indeed is the only allegation of state action in the complaint.
The defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) on the ground that it fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. However, they dispute the assertion that Mount Sinai is part of the City University and have submitted an affidavit of Barbara Barish, who is Mount Sinai's Vice President, Academic Administration, in support of their contention that Mount Sinai is not a state actor for purposes of this action. Accordingly, the Court notified the parties, as authorized by Rule 12(b), that it would convert the motion, insofar as it involved the state action issue, into a motion for summary judgment and consider the Barish affidavit and the exhibits thereto. It afforded the plaintiff an opportunity to submit any additional evidentiary material. Plaintiff responded with a letter from counsel, which sought an opportunity for discovery and reargued the motion at length, but submitted no additional evidence. Accordingly, that portion of defendants' motion which asserts that the complaint must be dismissed because there is no state action is considered according to the standard governing motions for summary judgment. The remainder of the complaint is assessed by the standard governing motions to dismiss for legal insufficiency.
Plaintiff's Factual Allegations
Plaintiff Nicola Tavoloni has been affiliated with Mount Sinai since 1980 and became a tenured professor in 1990.
It is undisputed that Dr. Tavoloni, during the early years of his affiliation with Mount Sinai, was a successful and, perhaps, distinguished researcher in the field of liver disease.
He contends, however, that Dr. Paul D. Berk, M.D., chief of the division of liver disease in the department of medicine, the division in which Dr. Tavoloni worked, began to disrupt his research endeavors and to harass plaintiff in 1992.
The alleged problem, which appears to have begun with disputes concerning laboratory facilities, festered.
According to the complaint, Dr. Berk informed plaintiff in early 1995 that plaintiff's salary would be cut if he did not obtain a new research grant.
Plaintiff rejoined that such action would be illegal and caused his counsel to approach the chairman of the department of medicine.
In the summer of 1996, plaintiff submitted a new grant application, which was signed both by Dr. Tavoloni and on behalf of Mount Sinai, to the National Institutes of Health ("NIH"). Although plaintiff's salary at the time allegedly was about $ 75,000 per annum, the document stated that his base salary was $ 109,584.
Plaintiff alleges that Mount Sinai indicated to him that his salary would be restored to that level if the grant were forthcoming.
The dispute reached its pre-litigation height in early 1997 when plaintiff's salary was cut to about $ 48,000 per annum, which plaintiff -- although still employed by Mount Sinai -- asserts constituted a constructive discharge from his tenured position.
He claims also that Dr. Berk has "continued a pattern of harassment and has created a hostile work environment, including threats to terminate plaintiff as a tenured professor."
The complaint attaches voluminous exhibits, including correspondence between Dr. Berk and Dr. Tavoloni. These documents reveal at least part of Mount Sinai's side of the story: that Dr. Tavoloni insisted on changing his area of research focus to one in which he had little experience, that he consequently lost grant support for his efforts, that he has been entirely uncooperative in working with Mount Sinai to deal with a radically changed environment in which funds for medical research had become more scarce, and that he has withdrawn from medical school affairs and become exceptionally contentious and hostile. While it is at least arguable that the attachment of these materials to the complaint permits the Court to consider them for all purposes on this motion.
it is unnecessary to do so in order to resolve the case. Accordingly, the Court has disregarded them except insofar as they support plaintiff.
Plaintiff's Legal Theories
The complaint contains six causes of action. The first maintains that the salary cut and harassment constituted a constructive discharge of plaintiff without due process of law and violated the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The salary cut is alleged also to have violated the Equal Protection Clause on the theory that others similarly situated were not so treated.
The second cause of action contends that the defendants violated plaintiff's First Amendment rights because the defendants' adverse actions were taken to retaliate against plaintiff for complaining to "the medical school's top administrators of the problems he was encountering" and, apparently, for writing to the NIH about what the complaint terms "defendants' actions in falsifying grant application documents."
The third cause of action asserts that the defendants -- Mount Sinai, the Mount Sinai Medical Center, and Dr. Berk -- have conspired to deprive plaintiff of his constitutional rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3), one of the Reconstruction Era civil rights statutes.
The fourth and fifth causes of action allege breach of plaintiff's employment contract and breach of his rights as an alleged third-party beneficiary of a 1989 NIH grant, respectively. Finally, the sixth cause of action contends that plaintiff's salary cut and other actions were designed to interfere with his rights under the Mount Sinai Sheltered Annuity Plan by reducing Mount Sinai's contributions to the plan in consequence of plaintiff's reduced salary.
This is said to have violated ERISA.
The facts pertinent to the state action issue are set forth in the Barish affidavit and the exhibits thereto and are undisputed.
Mount Sinai is an academic, not for profit corporation chartered by the Board of Regents of the State of New York.
It is governed by a board of trustees.
Plaintiff's misconception that it is part of the City University of New York ("CUNY") no doubt arises from a 1967 affiliation agreement between Mount Sinai and the Board of Higher Education in the City of New York (the "Board") pursuant to which Mount Sinai agreed to change its full name to Mount Sinai School of Medicine of The City University of New York.
And it is the terms of that agreement that are critical to the resolution of this issue.
The CUNY Affiliation Agreement
The stated purpose of the affiliation agreement was to extend CUNY's offerings in the health sciences and to afford a number of benefits to Mount Sinai.
Its key provisions are as follows:
1. Mount Sinai agreed to maintain and operate a medical school sufficient to secure appropriate accreditation. The Board in turn agreed that CUNY, "subject to financial ability and space limitations," would provide academic programs leading to M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physics, chemistry and certain other fields to students completing the appropriate programs at CUNY and at Mount Sinai.
2. The parties agreed to establish, "insofar as practicable," a common academic calendar and combined academic programs.
3. Each party agreed, "subject to financial ability and space limitations," to admit qualified students from the other institution to its courses and to allocate fees in respect of such cross-registration.
4. Mount Sinai faculty members were made eligible for designation as members of CUNY's doctoral faculty for such purposes as sponsoring dissertations. Members of the CUNY doctoral faculty who also were on the Mount Sinai faculty were given the right to elect representatives to the CUNY graduate faculty council, and Mount Sinai is to "be considered to be a college of the [City] University for that purpose." With minor exceptions not here relevant, however, no Mount Sinai faculty members or employees are to be considered employees of CUNY or any of its constituent colleges for any purpose.
5. Paragraph 5 provides as follows:
"The [City] University shall have the responsibility and authority to approve all courses and curriculums [ sic ], and appointments, reappointments, promotions, the designation of persons as department chairmen, and the granting of tenure to all members of the faculty of Mount Sinai except those designated as 'clinical.' It is the intent of this paragraph to give the University the responsibility and authority to approve the status of all faculty except for those in the non-basic science areas who are serving on a part-time basis. Such approval shall be given by a Review Committee consisting of the Chancellor of the City University, the Dean of Graduate Studies of the City University, and the Dean of Mount Sinai. The determination of said committee, by a majority vote, shall be final and shall be reported to the Board by the Chancellor in the Chancellor's Report."
6. "Regulations of Mount Sinai affecting faculty personnel and organization policies shall become effective only upon the approval of the Review Committee."
7. The Board agreed to employ up to ten full-time professors in the basic sciences as requested and to be assigned by Mount Sinai.
8. The parties agreed that Mount Sinai would not be deemed "part of the common school system" or be under the control or supervision of the Board, that the Mount Sinai board would retain full responsibility and authority for Mount Sinai's operations except as otherwise specifically provided in the affiliation agreement, that Mount Sinai and the CUNY and Board each would retain complete financial autonomy, and that Mount Sinai would retain complete authority over admission standards and the number of students to be admitted.
9. Mount Sinai agreed to add the chair of the Board and the Chancellor of CUNY to its board of trustees.
The Board agreed that the dean of Mount Sinai would become a member of the City University administrative council and would have the status in CUNY academic administration equivalent to that of a president of one of the senior colleges.
Practice Under the Affiliation Agreement
At this point, Mount Sinai has 3,154 faculty members. CUNY provides full funding for one of them and partial funding for four others. Dr. Tavoloni is not among these.
Although CUNY has the right to approve, but not dictate, Mount Sinai's decisions with respect to curriculum, faculty appointments outside the basic sciences area, and organization policies, it does not in fact participate in any decision making regarding Mount Sinai's operations, academic affiliations, clinical practice or faculty appointments.
The Constitutional Claims
Plaintiff agrees that his claims under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are insufficient unless the actions complained of were "undertaken by state actors or under color of state law . . ."
His theory of state action is that Mount Sinai is part of CUNY, which is an arm of the state.
The theory, however, is at odds with the undisputed facts because Mount Sinai is not part of CUNY, its official name notwithstanding. The only connection between them is that spelled out in the affiliation agreement and the practice thereunder. The question therefore is whether plaintiff, on the facts now before the Court, has raised a genuine issue of material fact that warrants a trial on the issue of state action.
Plaintiff is right of course in suggesting that issues of state action do not readily yield to an easily stated, universal rule and in invoking Mr. Justice Clark's opinion in Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority34 for the proposition that it is "only by sifting facts and weighing circumstances [that] the nonobvious involvement of the State in private conduct [can] be attributed its true significance."
But the fact that factual variations make a categorical rule difficult is a far cry from plaintiff's suggestion that a trial is required where, as here, the facts are undisputed and the reasonable inferences therefrom would not permit a judgment in plaintiff's favor.
In contending that the Mount Sinai conduct at issue in this case was state action, plaintiff points to several features of the affiliation agreement: (1) CUNY's agreement to provide space, personnel and facilities for Mount Sinai; (2) the effort to establish a common academic calender and, at least to some extent, combined academic programs; (3) the Board's agreement that Mount Sinai faculty members would be eligible for designation as members of the CUNY doctoral faculty for such purposes as sponsoring dissertations; (4) CUNY's right to approve courses, curricula, appointments, reappointments, promotions, designation of department chairs, and the granting of tenure to Mount Sinai faculty members; (5) the Board's undertaking to hire up to ten full time professors for assignment to Mount Sinai; (6) Mount Sinai's agreement to add the chair of the Board and the Chancellor of CUNY to its board of trustees; and (7) the name change.
But these circumstances, whether viewed individually or collectively, do not yield the conclusion that Mount Sinai's actions with respect to Dr. Tavoloni "may be fairly treated as [those] of the State itself."
Plaintiff's reliance on CUNY's alleged provision of space, personnel and facilities
amounts to a contention that state funding suffices to establish state action. Likewise, his reliance on the contractual right of the Board and/or CUNY to approve courses, faculty appointments, and grants of tenure in substance argues that extensive state regulation renders its subject a state actor.
The law, however, is very much to the contrary where, as here, there is no connection between the action complained of and the state support or regulation.
In Rendell-Baker v. Kohn,40 for example, the Supreme Court held that the discharge of a number of teachers and a counselor by a private school could not be laid at the doorstep of the state despite the fact that the state provided 90 to 99 percent of the school's budget. It framed the issue as "not whether petitioners were discharged because of their speech or without adequate procedural protections, but whether the school's action in discharging them can fairly be seen as state action."
It went on to note that none of the state agencies that funded or dealt with the school had any role in the discharges
and held that neither state funding nor state regulation of the school sufficed.
Similarly, the Court in Blum v. Yaretsky43 dealt with the question whether nursing homes were state actors with respect to their decisions to transfer patients. The nursing homes in question were extensively regulated by state law.
State regulations required the nursing homes "to make all efforts possible to transfer patients to the appropriate level of care or home as indicated by the patient's medical condition or needs"
and imposed penalties on nursing homes that failed to do so.
Nevertheless, the Court held that the state was not sufficiently implicated in the nursing homes' transfer decisions to justify a finding of state action. It noted that "the mere fact that a business is subject to state regulation does not by itself convert its action to that of the State for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment."
It rejected the notion that "mere approval or acquiescence [by the state] in the initiatives of a private party" would suffice.
Rather, "a State normally can be held responsible for a private decision only when it has exercised coercive power or has provided such significant encouragement, either overt or covert, that the choice must be deemed to be that of the State."
The Second Circuit's recent decision in Leeds v. Meltz50 confirms that CUNY's support and regulation, whether actual or potential, of Mount Sinai is insufficient in these circumstances to justify a conclusion that Mount Sinai was a state actor with respect to Dr. Tavoloni. In rejecting a contention that the refusal by a CUNY Law School journal to accept an advertisement was state action and therefore subject to First and Fourteenth Amendment scrutiny, the Circuit held in reliance on Rendell-Baker and Blum, that "extensive regulation and public funding, either alone or taken together, will not transform a private actor into a state actor; instead, the state must have exerted its coercive power over, or provided significant encouragement to, the defendant before the latter will be deemed a state actor."
The fact that Mount Sinai agreed to change its name to The Mount Sinai School of Medicine of The City University of New York adds little to plaintiff's case. As the in banc Seventh Circuit held in a similar case involving the Illinois Institute of Technology:
"The use of the State's name gives rise to an appearance of State involvement in I.T.T.'s activities, but . . . unless the appearance of state support either facilitates the activity in question, or provides evidence that the institution is, in fact, a State instrumentality, it is of no relevance."
There is, to be sure, a distinction between the names at issue in Cohen and this case. The use of "Illinois" in the name of the Illinois Institute of Technology does not unambiguously indicate a connection between the State of Illinois and the Institute, as "Illinois Institute of Technology" is susceptible also of the construction that the entity is located in rather than an arm of the State of Illinois. The name here, on the other hand, unambiguously states that Mount Sinai is a school of medicine "of The City University of New York." In the last analysis, however, this is a distinction without a difference given the lack of any contention that the state played any role in the actions complained of.
The remaining facts upon which plaintiff relies -- the common features of the academic programs, the addition of Board and CUNY representatives to Mount Sinai's board, and the eligibility of Mount Sinai faculty for designation as members of the CUNY doctoral faculty -- are of considerably less significance and for essentially the same reason. None even suggests that the state "coerced or significantly encouraged"
the conduct at issue.
Plaintiff relies also upon Wahba v. New York University54 although it is difficult to understand what he draws from it. The plaintiff in that case, a research scientist, claimed that he had been removed from an NIH-funded research project at and fired by NYU in retaliation for his having engaged in First Amendment protected activities. In affirming Judge Knapp's grant of summary judgment dismissing the action, the Second Circuit first held in essence that NYU was not a state actor because the state had nothing to do with its actions with respect to the plaintiff.
It then held that the NIH grant did not sufficiently involve the United States in NYU's actions to render it subject to the Fifth Amendment, in part because "this kind of arrangement, whereby federal funds are used to prime the pump of research effort in private scientific institutions which the Government could not perform as well, has social values too obvious to require elaboration."
While Dr. Tavoloni would make much of the fact that the plaintiff in Wahba, unlike himself, was not the principal investigator named in the NIH grant,
that distinction simply does not bear on the question whether the state was sufficiently involved in Mount Sinai's actions with respect to Dr. Tavoloni to render Mount Sinai an arm of the state in constitutional and statutory contemplation.
The conclusion that plaintiff has not raised a genuine issue of material fact with respect to the state action element of the first two causes of action is confirmed by the long line of Second Circuit cases dealing with similar questions in analogous institutional contexts. In Albert v. Carovano,58 for example, the Court held that Hamilton College's decision to discipline students was not transformed into state action because the regulation pursuant to which it had done so was adopted to comply with state legislation mandating that colleges have disciplinary rules. It relied on Judge Friendly's opinion in the seminal case of Powe v. Miles59 for the proposition -- central in this case as well-- that state action exists in circumstances like these only if the state is "involved not simply with some activity of the institution alleged to have inflicted injury upon a plaintiff but with the activity that caused the injury."
Accordingly, plaintiff has failed to raise a genuine issue of fact material to the issue whether the state action requirement is satisfied.
One point remains for consideration. In response to the Court's notice that it would convert the state action branch of defendants' motion into one for summary judgment and its invitation to submit any additional evidentiary material, plaintiff sent a letter requesting a continuance to permit discovery pursuant to Rule 56(f).
FED. R. CIV. P. 56(f) provides as follows:
"Should it appear from the affidavits of a party opposing the motion [for summary judgment] that the party cannot for reasons stated present by affidavit facts essential to justify the party's opposition, the court may refuse the application for judgment or may order a continuance to permit affidavits to be obtained or depositions to be taken or discovery to be had or may make such other order as is just."