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CURTO v. SMITH

March 12, 2003

PATRICIA J. CURTO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DONALD SMITH, DR., DEAN; KATHERINE EDMONDSON, DR., ASSISTANT DEAN; HUNTER RAWLINGS III, DR., PRESIDENT; WENDY TARLOW, ASSOCIATE UNIVERSITY COUNSEL; CORNELL UNIVERSITY'S COLLEGE OF VETERINARY MEDICINE; CORNELL UNIVERSITY; STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK; ROBERT KING, CHANCELLOR OF SUNY; ROD PAIGE, SECRETARY OF EDUCATION; LEROY ROOKER, DIRECTOR FAMILY POLICY COMPLIANCE; UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION; JOHN DOE(S); JANE DOE(S), SUED IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES, DEFENDANTS. PATRICIA J. CURTO, PLAINTIFF, V. DR. DONALD SMITH; DR. KATHERINE EDMONDSON; DR. HUNTER RAWLINGS III; MR. NELSON ROTH; CORNELL UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF VETERINARY MEDICINE; CORNELL UNIVERSITY; STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK; STATE OF NEW YORK MR. RICHARD MILLS; JOHN/JANE DOE(S); AND NEW YORK STATE EDUCATION DEPARTMENT, DEFENDANTS. PATRICIA J. CURTO, PLAINTIFF, V. DR. KATHERINE EDMONDSON; DAVE FRANK; NELSON ROTH; DR. WALTER LYNN; DANILEE POPPENSIEK; CORNELL UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF VETERINARY MEDICINE; CORNELL UNIVERSITY; STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK; STATE OF NEW YORK; ROBERT KING; WILLIAM MURABITO; RICHARD MILLS; NEW YORK STATE EDUCATION DEPARTMENT; AND JOHN/JANE DOE(S), DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Frederick J. Scullin Jr., Chief Judge

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Patricia J. Curto brings three related actions alleging various deprivations of federal constitutional and statutory rights and related state law claims. The cases are 5:01-CV-1570 ("Curto I"), 5:01-CV-1781 ("Curto II"), and 5:01-CV-1824 ("Curto III"), chronologically by filing date. By Consolidation and Scheduling Order dated April 19, 2002, Magistrate Judge Sharpe consolidated the three underlying cases for the purposes of discovery, motions, and other pretrial matters and designated Curto I as the lead case. See Curto I, Dkt. No. 66.*fn1

A. Curto I

In Curto I, Plaintiff asserts seven causes of actions pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 1985 and Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), all related to alleged violations of her rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 ("FERPA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1232(g). Plaintiff names as Defendants the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine (the "College of Veterinary Medicine"); Cornell University; Dr. Donald Smith, Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine; Dr. Katherine Edmondson, Assistant Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine; Dr. Hunter Rawlings III, President of Cornell University; and Wendy Tarlow, Associate University Counsel (collectively, the "Cornell Defendants"). In addition, Plaintiff names the State University of New York ("SUNY") and Robert King, Chancellor of SUNY (collectively, the "State Defendants").*fn2 Finally, Plaintiff names the United States Department of Education ("DOE"); Rod Paige, Secretary of Education; and Leroy Rooker, Director of the Family Policy Compliance Office (collectively, the "Federal Defendants").

Presently before the Court are the Cornell Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c), Defendant King's and the Federal Defendants' motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), and Plaintiff's motion for Rule 11 sanctions.

B. Curto II

In Curto II, Plaintiff asserts a single cause of action that invokes numerous constitutional and statutory provisions. Plaintiff generally alleges that various Defendants discriminated against her on the basis of her age and gender. Plaintiff names as Defendants the College of Veterinary Medicine; Cornell University; Dr. Donald Smith, Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine; Dr. Katherine Edmondson, Assistant Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine; Dr. Hunter Rawlings III, President of Cornell University; and Nelson Roth, University Counsel (collectively the "Cornell Defendants"). In addition, Plaintiff names Richard Mills, Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, as a Defendant.*fn3

Presently before the Court is the Cornell Defendants' motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 41(b) and 12(b)(6). The Cornell Defendants alternatively request that the Court issue a conditional order of dismissal, as it previously did in Curto I, directing Plaintiff to cure various defects in her amended complaint. Also before the Court is Defendant Mills' motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).

C. Curto III

Presently before the Court are the Cornell Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) or, in the alternative, for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56, and the State Defendants' motions*fn5 to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Patricia Curto, enrolled as a first-year student at the College of Veterinary Medicine during the 1997-1998 academic year. All students are required to take a foundation course in animal anatomy, known as VTMED-510 — The Animal Body ("Block I"), as part of the first-year curriculum. Students must pass Block I before going on to other courses.

Plaintiff sat for the Block I examination in November 1997 and received a failing grade.*fn6 Plaintiff was thereafter notified that, pursuant to Veterinary School policy, she was not permitted to continue on in the curriculum, but that she could repeat Block I in Fall 1998. Plaintiff was also notified that students who receive a failing grade in two foundation courses are not permitted to reregister.*fn7

Plaintiff reregistered and repeated Block I in the fall of 1998. Upon sitting for the Block I exam for the second time in November 1998, Plaintiff once again received a failing grade.*fn8 Plaintiff was thus barred from reregistering at the Veterinary School.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard

The majority of the motions presently before the Court are styled motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) or judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c). "The test for evaluating a 12(c) motion is the same as that applicable to a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.Proc. 12(b)(6)." Irish Lesbian & Gay Org. v. Giuliani, 143 F.3d 638, 644 (2d Cir. 1998). A court may not dismiss an action pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure unless it appears beyond a doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6); Chambers v. Time Warner, Inc., 282 F.3d 147, 152 (2d Cir. 2002). In making this determination, the court must "constru[e] the complaint liberally, accepting all factual allegations in the complaint as true, and drawing all reasonable inferences in the Plaintiff's favor." Chambers, 282 F.3d at 152 (citing Sweet v. Sheahan, 235 F.3d 80, 83 (2d Cir. 2000)).

B. Claims Against the Cornell Defendants Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

As an initial matter, the Court will address all of Plaintiff's claims brought against the Cornell Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in Curto I, II and III, as all such claims present the same legal issue. The College of Veterinary Medicine is one of four statutory colleges at Cornell University. See N.Y. Educ. Law § 5711 (McKinney 2002) (establishing the "New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University"). Despite the hybrid public-private nature of the College of Veterinary Medicine, the Cornell Defendants contend that they may not be held liable under § 1983 because they are not state actors. Resolution of this question thus requires an analysis of the nature the relationship between the College of Veterinary Medicine and the State of New York. For the following reasons, the Court finds that the Cornell Defendants may not fairly be characterized as state actors in this case.

"Section 1983 provides an instrument by which an individual deprived of a federal right by a person acting under color of state law may be compensated." Eagleston v. Guido, 41 F.3d 865, 875 (2d Cir. 1994) (citation omitted).

"It is well established that in order to state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege (1) that the challenged conduct was attributable at least in part to a person acting under color of state law, and (2) that such conduct deprived the plaintiff of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States."

Id. at 875-76 (quoting Dwares v. City of New York, 985 F.2d 94, 98 (2d Cir. 1993)).

The gravamen of Plaintiff's complaints in each of the underlying actions is that various members of the faculty and staff at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Cornell University violated her federally protected rights. The issue before the Court is, thus, whether the particular actors and the type of actions complained of bear a sufficient nexus to the State of New York to warrant a finding of state action.

Plaintiff argues that Powe v. Miles, 407 F.2d 73 (2d Cir. 1968), compels the conclusion that the College of Veterinary Medicine is a state actor for the purposes of § 1983. In Powe, the Second Circuit found that the President and Dean of Alfred University engaged in state action when they enforced various university regulations against student protesters at the New York State College of Ceramics, a statutory college similar, in structure, to the College of Veterinary Medicine. See id. at 82-83. The Powe court reasoned that the statutory language creating the College of Ceramics designated the Alfred University administration "`as the representative of the state university trustees.'" Id. at 83 (quotation omitted).

Subsequent cases interpreting Powe, however, have made clear that "the determination of state action must be based on a particularized inquiry focusing on whether there is `a sufficiently close nexus between the State and the challenged action of the regulated entity so that the action of the latter may fairly be treated as that of the State itself.'" New York City Jaycees, Inc. v. Unites States Jaycees, Inc., 512 F.2d 856, 858-59 (2d Cir. 1975) (quoting Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Company, 419 U.S. 345, 349, 95 S.Ct. 449, 453, 42 L.Ed.2d 477 (1974)). In Logiodice v. Trustees of Maine Cent. Inst., 296 F.3d 22 (1st Cir. 2002), the First Circuit summarized the Supreme Court's jurisprudence on this issue as follows:

[U]nder several doctrines, acts by a nominally private entity may comprise state action — e.g., if, with respect to the activity at issue, the private entity is engaged in a traditionally exclusive public function; is `entwined' with the government; is subject to governmental coercion or encouragement; or is willingly engaged in joint action with the government.

Id. at 16 (citing Brentwood Acad. v. Tenn. Secondary Sch. Athletic Ass'n, 531 U.S. 288, 295-96 121 S.Ct. 924, 148 L.Ed.2d 807 (2001)). The First Circuit noted, however, that "[t]he doctrines are too generally phrased to be self-executing: the cases are sensitive to fact situations and lack neat consistency." Id. (citation omitted); see Brentwood Academy, 531 U.S. at 298 (whether an ostensibly private entity acts under color of state law is a "`necessarily fact-bound inquiry'") (quoting Lugar, 457 U.S., at 939, 102 S.Ct. 2744).

Recently, the Supreme Court identified "entwinement" of public and private functions as the unifying theme in the case law. See Brentwood Acad., 531 U.S. at 295-97.*fn9 In Logiodice, one of the few cases to apply Brentwood Academy, the First Circuit found that a private secondary school, the Maine Central Institute ("MCI"), which operated in lieu of public schools under a contract with the State of Maine and a local school district, was not a state actor for the purposes of § 1983, with respect to matters of student discipline. See Logiodice, 296 F.3d at 28-32. Applying the "entwinement" analysis set forth in Brentwood Academy, the court noted that several factors weighed in favor of finding state action: MCI was subject to regulation by the state under various statutes; eighty percent of MCI's students were sponsored by the local school district; the school district contributed half of MCI's budget; and in many respects, MCI's students were treated as if they were regular public school students. See id. at 28. However, the court found more significant the fact that "MCI is run by private trustees and not public officials" and that the private trustees had the sole right to "promulgate, administer and enforce" rules and regulations governing the particular activities complained of, i.e., matters of student discipline. Id. The court thus concluded that there was no government entwinement with respect to the day-to-day administration of MCI, despite the undisputed ties to the State of Maine.

The parallels between the instant case and Logiodice are clear. As in Logiodice, the College of Veterinary Medicine has undeniably strong ties to the State of New York. For example, the College of Veterinary Medicine is created by statute, receives some state funding and must consult with the SUNY Board of Trustees regarding certain matters, including tuition rates and appointment of Deans. See Stoll v. New York State Coll. of Veterinary Med. at Cornell Univ., 94 N.Y.2d 162, 166 (1999).*fn10 However, the State of New York "does not have direct operational authority" over the administration of the statutory colleges and, unlike SUNY, employees of the statutory colleges are not classified as members of the State civil service." Id. (citation omitted). In addition, the vast majority of the day-to-day operations at the College of Veterinary Medicine are expressly committed to its private discretion. See id. (citations omitted). Significantly, as in Logiodice, "Cornell . . . is specifically charged with creating the academic curriculum, hiring faculty, maintaining discipline and formulating educational policies for the statutory colleges." See id. (citation omitted).

The bulk of the causes of action in the instant cases relate to alleged unlawful and/or discriminatory application of various administrative, academic and disciplinary policies of the College of Veterinary Medicine. Specifically, in Curto I, Plaintiff takes issue with policies relating to dissemination of academic information;*fn11 in Curto II and III, Plaintiff alleges that academic and disciplinary policies were enforced against her in a discriminatory fashion, based on her age and gender. The critical factor in the present analysis is that the statutes governing the College of Veterinary Medicine explicitly commit the creation and enforcement of educational and disciplinary policies to the private institution. Moreover, there is no direct oversight or involvement by state officials in such matters. Finally, it is well-established that mere receipt of state funds is insufficient to transform a nominally private entity into a state actor for the purposes of ยง 1983. See, e.g., Alcena v. Raine, 692 ...


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