United States District Court, W.D. New York
April 18, 2005.
PAUL S. OWENS, Plaintiff,
JOHN R. PARRINELLO, ESQ., Brighton Campus Monroe Community College Members of the Board of Trustees in their official capacity only, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: DAVID LARIMER, Chief Judge, District
DECISION AND ORDER
Plaintiff, Paul Owens, brings this action under
42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that certain of his rights have been violated by
defendant Monroe Community College's ("MCC") refusal to allow him
to graduate with an associate's degree. On March 16, 2005, the
Court issued an Order and Judgment dismissing a number of
plaintiff's claims. Pending before the Court is a motion to
dismiss plaintiff's remaining claims, which are brought against
certain MCC officials and its board of trustees in their official
capacities. For the following reasons, that motion is granted,
and the complaint is dismissed. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff alleges that he was homeschooled by his parents
through high school, in compliance with New York regulations
governing homeschooling. He completed a four-year high school
program in 2001.
Plaintiff applied to and was accepted at MCC, beginning with
the Fall 2001 semester. By the time this action was commenced in
September 2003, plaintiff had completed four semesters of study
at MCC, and had earned enough credits to be awarded an
associate's degree. In December 2002, however, plaintiff received
a letter from MCC informing plaintiff that MCC "ha[d] recently
been notified by the New York State Education Department that
documentation of a high school diploma or equivalency is required
before a student can graduate from a New York State college."
Amended Complaint (Dkt. #25) Ex. 7. The letter further stated
that MCC's records indicated that MCC had never received proof
from plaintiff that he had either a high school diploma or a
general equivalency diploma ("GED"). The letter stated that if
plaintiff had not graduated from high school or earned a GED, he
should "consider one of the options listed in the enclosure. You
will need to take some action to ensure you qualify for
graduation when you complete your degree requirements." Id. The
letter then provided information about how plaintiff could obtain
Plaintiff did not attempt to obtain a GED. He does not contend
that he would have been unable to obtain a GED, but states that
he is unwilling to do so because a GED "carries the stigma of being a substitute for a high school diploma utilized
primarily for high school dropouts. . . ." Amended Complaint ¶
In October 2003, plaintiff applied for admission to the State
University of New York at Brockport ("Brockport"), seeking to
transfer there. Brockport's admissions director allegedly told
plaintiff that he was ineligible for admission because plaintiff
did not have a state-recognized high school diploma or GED.
Amended Complaint ¶ 37.
Plaintiff then applied to and was accepted at Roberts Wesleyan
College ("Roberts") as a junior in January 2004. He is currently
Plaintiff commenced this action in September 2003, alleging
various violations of his constitutional rights. The original
complaint sought only declaratory and injunctive relief,
primarily aimed at directing MCC to issue him an associate's
degree. In April 2004, plaintiff filed an amended complaint which
also requests an award of damages for the difference between the
tuition that plaintiff is paying at Roberts (about $6100 per
semester) and the tuition that he would have paid had he been
accepted at Brockport (about $2600 per semester).
In September 2004, the New York State Board of Regents amended
the regulations governing homeschooling to provide that, as long
as their homeschool instruction meets certain requirements,
homeschooled students can be graduated from a New York college.
In addition, at oral argument on the pending motion, the parties
agreed that, pursuant to those amended regulations, MCC has now issued plaintiff an associate's degree. Plaintiff concedes that
his claims for injunctive relief are therefore moot, but he still
seeks damages. See Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law (Dkt. #58) at
The amended complaint asserts four causes of action. The first
alleges that plaintiff possesses a protected property interest in
receiving an earned associate's degree, and that defendants
deprived him of that property interest without due process of
law. Plaintiff's second cause of action alleges that defendants
discriminated against plaintiff because of his parents' exercise
of their constitutional right to homeschool plaintiff. The third
claim alleges that defendants violated plaintiff's constitutional
right to equal protection by treating him differently from
students with high school diplomas or GEDs. Plaintiff's fourth
cause of action alleges a violation of New York Education Law §
3204, which provides that a child "may attend a public school or
elsewhere," so long as the instruction given "elsewhere" is
"substantially equivalent" to that given in public schools.
I. Due Process Claim
Plaintiff's due process claim rests upon his assertion that he
had a protected property interest in graduating from MCC. He
contends that this interest arose by virtue of an implied
contract between him and MCC.
It is true that New York courts have identified an implied
contract between an institution of higher learning and its
students which requires the "academic institution [to] act in
good faith in its dealings with its students." Branum v. Clark,
927 F.2d 698, 705 (2d Cir. 1991) (quoting Olsson v. Board of Higher Educ., 49 N.Y.2d 408, 414 (1980)). Pursuant to
that implied contract, "if [the student] complies with the terms
prescribed by the [school], he will obtain the degree which he
sought." Olsson, 49 N.Y.2d at 414 (quoting Matter of Carr v.
St. John's Univ., 17 A.D.2d 632, 633, aff'd 12 N.Y.2d 802
(1962)). This implied contract "provide[s] the basis for a
property interest that would be entitled to constitutional
protection." Branum, 927 F.2d at 705.
The problem with plaintiff's claim, though, is that MCC was
willing to award plaintiff a degree as long as he met all of the
state's requirements for issuance of a degree, including (prior
to the amendment of the regulations) possession of a high school
diploma or GED. Although MCC did not inform plaintiff of that
requirement until his third semester, courts have held that a
change in graduation requirements does not amount to a breach of
the implied contract. See, e.g., Babiker v. Ross Univ. Sch. of
Med., No. 98 CIV 1429, 2000 WL 666342, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. May 19,
2000) ("Implicit in a university's general contract with its
students is a right to change the academic degree requirements,
provided that such changes are not arbitrary and capricious");
Keles v. N.Y.U., No. 91 CIV. 7457, 1994 WL 119525, at *6
(S.D.N.Y. Apr. 6, 1994) ("the University could change the
regulations for Ph.D. matriculation without breaching its
contract"); see also Mahavongsanan v. Hall, 529 F.2d 448, 450
(5th Cir. 1976) (change in graduation requirements not a
breach of contract, as change constituted proper exercise of
university's educational responsibilities) (citing Foley v.
Benedict, 122 Tex. 193 (1932)); Easley v. University of
Michigan Bd. of Regents, 627 F.Supp. 580, 585-86 (E.D.Mich.
1986) (finding frivolous plaintiff's argument that he was not
bound to a change in the number of hours needed to graduate),
aff'd, 906 F.2d 1143 (6th Cir. 1990), cert. denied,
499 U.S. 947 (1991). MCC's imposition of a high school diploma or GED
requirement for graduation, which was based on a change in governing New York State
regulations, was neither arbitrary nor capricious, so plaintiff's
due process claim fails.
II. Discrimination Because of Plaintiff's Parents' Exercise of
Their Constitutional Rights
In his second cause of action, plaintiff alleges that
defendants unlawfully discriminated against him on account of his
parents' exercise of their constitutional right to direct their
child's education. Plaintiff alleges that by doing so, defendants
deprived him of his property rights without due process of law.
Amended Complaint ¶ 58.
There are a number of flaws with this claim. First, to the
extent that it is premised on an alleged denial of a property
interest, it fails for the same reasons as the first cause of
action. Second, to the extent that plaintiff claims that he was
discriminated against because he had been homeschooled, this
claim is duplicative of his equal protection claim, which is
addressed below, and is subject to dismissal on that ground.
See, e.g., Collins v. Yellow Freight System, Inc.,
93 Fed.Appx. 854, 863 (6th Cir. 2004) (district court correctly dismissed
plaintiff's public policy claim as duplicative of his statutory
disability discrimination claim); Lawrence v. Town of
Irondequoit, 246 F.Supp.2d 150, 169 (W.D.N.Y. 2002) (dismissing
fraud claim as duplicative of breach of contract claim).
Third, to the extent that plaintiff alleges that defendants
violated his parents' constitutional right to homeschool him,
plaintiff lacks standing to assert such a claim. A plaintiff may
assert the constitutional claims of a third party if he can
demonstrate: (1) injury to the plaintiff; (2) a close
relationship between the plaintiff and the third party that would
cause plaintiff to be an effective advocate for the third party's rights; and (3) "some hindrance to
the third party's ability to protect his or her own interests."
Campbell v. Louisiana, 523 U.S. 392, 397 (1998). Plaintiff has
not alleged any facts showing that his parents have been hindered
from vindicating their own rights in this regard.
For that matter, there are no facts alleged that show that
plaintiff's parents rights were violated to begin with.
Plaintiff's parents did homeschool him, all the way through
high school. The only alleged injury to anyone came after
plaintiff's homeschooling was completed, and the injury was to
plaintiff, not his parents. This claim must therefore be
dismissed as well.
III. Equal Protection Claim
In support of his equal protection claim, plaintiff alleges
that defendants treated him differently from similarly situated
public school graduates, by denying him an associate's degree
without first obtaining a GED. Plaintiff contends that because
his homeschool education was substantially equivalent to a public
school education, there was no rational basis for this difference
Plaintiff then goes on to apply strict scrutiny analysis to
defendants' actions. That is incorrect. Strict scrutiny review
only applies when legislation discriminates on the basis of a
person's membership in a suspect class or when it burdens a
group's exercise of a fundamental right. Plyler v. Doe,
457 U.S. 202, 216-17 (1982); see, e.g., City of Richmond v. J.A.
Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469, 493-94 (1989) (applying strict
scrutiny to program that discriminated on basis of race, a
suspect classification); Skinner v. Okla. ex rel. Williamson,
316 U.S. 535, 541-42 (1942) (invalidating sterilization law because it impinged on the fundamental right to
marriage and procreation of some criminals, but not others).
Instead, the proper analysis here is whether defendants' GED
requirement was rationally related to a legitimate government
interest. See, e.g., Allied Stores of Ohio, Inc. v. Bowers,
358 U.S. 522, 528-29 (1959); Smart v. Ashcroft, 401 F.3d 119, 122
(2d Cir. 2005); Goulart v. Meadows, 345 F.3d 239, 260-61
(4th Cir. 2003) (applying rational-relationship test to equal
protection claims by parents of homeschooled children).
Government actions treating different groups of people
differently will survive this level of scrutiny unless the
plaintiff proves that the class-based distinctions are wholly
irrational. See, e.g., Hodel v. Indiana, 452 U.S. 314, 331-32
Defendants' actions here easily pass that test. Colleges
certainly have a legitimate interest in maintaining academic
standards and ensuring that appropriate graduation requirements
such as possession of a high school diploma or its equivalent
have been met. MCC was not required simply to take plaintiff at
his word that he had received the equivalent of a public high
school education. See, e.g., Vandiver v. Hardin County Bd. of
Educ., 925 F.2d 927, 931 (6th Cir. 1991) (requiring
home-schooled students to pass an exam before transferring into
county school system did not violate equal protection, since
testing requirement bore a rational relationship to state's
legitimate interest in setting uniform public school advancement
and graduation requirements); Hubbard By and Through Hubbard v.
Buffalo Independent School Dist., 20 F.Supp.2d 1012, 1016-17
(W.D.Tex. 1998) (school district's policy of requiring students
transferring from non-accredited or home schools to pass
proficiency exams at their own expense in order to receive credit
toward graduation was rationally related to legitimate state
interest in setting uniform public school advancement and graduation requirements, and therefore did not violate equal
protection). See also Anderson v. University of Wisconsin,
665 F.Supp. 1372, 1392 (W.D.Wis. 1987) ("if the [school's] academic
standards are rationally related to the . . . school's legitimate
goals, then the law school has no obligation to make exceptions
to those standards").
Second, the Supreme Court has stated that "[c]ourts have
stressed the importance of avoiding second-guessing of legitimate
academic judgments," and "has cautioned that `judges . . . asked
to review the substance of a genuinely academic decision . . .
should show great respect for the faculty's professional
judgment.'" University of Penn. v. EEOC, 493 U.S. 182, 199
(1990) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). To that
end, "the widest possible range of discretion must be afforded
university faculties in their evaluation of a student's . . .
eligibility to promotion or graduation." Hammond v. Auburn
Univ., 669 F.Supp. 1555, 1561 (M.D.Ala. 1987).
Courts, then, should avoid interfering with or second-guessing
a college's academic decisions. "[T]he federal courts are
reluctant to interfere in the internal operations of [a
college]." Parate v. Isibor, 868 F.2d 821, 827 (6th Cir.
1989). See, e.g., Haberle v. University of Alabama in
Birmingham, 803 F.2d 1536, 1541 (11th Cir. 1986)
(requirement by university that student successfully pass
qualifying examination before continuing to pursue a doctorate
degree in chemistry was not arbitrary; "courts should not
interfere with this academic decision"); Wirsing v. Board of
Regents of University of Colorado, 739 F.Supp. 551, 553 (D.Colo.
1990) (noting that "the federal courts are reluctant to interfere
in the internal daily operations of [a college] which do not
directly and sharply implicate basic constitutional values");
Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 104 (1968)). As stated, MCC's actions were rationally related to its
legitimate interests in maintaining academic standards and the
integrity of its degree-granting programs, not to mention its
interest in complying with state-imposed regulations. The Court
should not and will not second-guess those actions.
IV. Plaintiff's Claim for Damages
Aside from these problems with plaintiff's individual claims,
plaintiff's claim for damages suffers from certain fundamental
defects, regardless of the legal theories on which it is
premised. For one thing, according to the complaint, the reason
that plaintiff was ineligible to attend Brockport's was not that
he lacked a diploma from MCC; it was his lack of a high
school diploma (or GED) that was the obstacle. MCC had nothing
to do with that.
Plaintiff states in a declaration that Brockport's director of
admissions told him that if plaintiff had possessed a diploma
from MCC, Brockport would have assumed that he was a high school
graduate, without requiring him to submit proof of his high
school education.*fn2 That does not alter the fact that
plaintiff did not have a high school diploma, however, and I
see no reason why MCC should have essentially helped plaintiff
misrepresent his educational background. Another fundamental problem with plaintiff's claim for damages
is that even assuming that his rights had been violated, which
they were not it rests on the assumption that he would have
been admitted to Brockport had MCC graduated him. That is little
more than speculation.
V. Plaintiff's Claims for Equitable Relief
As stated, plaintiff appears to concede that his claims for
injunctive and declaratory relief are moot, and they are
therefore dismissed as well. Pursuant to Article III of the
Constitution, federal courts "have jurisdiction only over live
cases and controversies." ABC, Inc. v. Stewart, 360 F.3d 90, 97
(2d Cir. 2004). "Therefore, under the mootness doctrine, `if an
event occurs while a case is pending . . . that makes it
impossible for the court to grant "any effectual relief whatever"
to a prevailing party,' [the court] must dismiss the case. . . ."
Id. (quoting Church of Scientology v. United States,
506 U.S. 9, 12 (1992)). See also Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452, 459
n. 10 (1974) (mootness doctrine provides that "an actual
controversy must be extant at all stages of review, not merely at
the time the complaint is filed"). Since plaintiff has now
received an associate's degree from MCC, his claims for equitable
relief are dismissed as moot.
VI. Plaintiff's State Law Claim
As stated, plaintiff's fourth cause of action alleges a
violation of N.Y. Educ. L. § 3204. The Second Circuit has stated
that, in general, "if [all] federal claims are dismissed before
trial . . ., the state claims should be dismissed as well."
Castellano v. Board of Trustees, 937 F.2d 752, 758 (2d Cir.
1991) (quoting United Mine Workers v. Gibbs, 383 U.S. 715, 726
(1966)); accord Giordano v. City of New York, 274 F.3d 740, 754 (2d Cir. 2001); see also
Sadallah v. City of Utica, 383 F.3d 34, 40 (2d Cir. 2004)
("because plaintiffs no longer have any viable federal claim, any
remaining state law claims belong in state, rather than federal,
court"). Plaintiff's fourth cause of action is therefore
dismissed without prejudice to refiling in state court.
VII. Defendants' Cross-Claim
Defendants have also asserted a cross-claim for indemnity
against certain other defendants, generally referred to by the
parties as "the State defendants." (Plaintiff's claims against
the State defendants have already been dismissed.) Since I am
dismissing the complaint in its entirety, defendants' cross-claim
is dismissed as well.
Defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint (Dkt. #56) is
granted, and the complaint is dismissed.
Defendants' cross-claim (Dkt. #31) is dismissed as moot.
IT IS SO ORDERED.