MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER*fn1
Currently before the Court is the Motion to dismiss filed by Defendants Poskanzer, Zuckerman, Raskin, and Rooney. (Dkt. No. 26). Plaintiffs Justin Holmes and Richard Partington III (collectively, "Plaintiffs") brought this action asserting that Defendants' conduct violated Plaintiffs' rights protected by the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Plaintiffs argued that their First Amendment rights were violated in that they were retaliated against for engaging in protected speech and that their rights to procedural due process were violated by the SUNY New Paltz administrative proceeding which resulted in disciplinary sanctions against them.
On August 11, 2006, Plaintiffs brought an action pursuant to Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code, alleging that Defendants the State University of New York at New Paltz ("SUNY New Paltz"), Steven G. Poskanzer ("Poskanzer"), President of SUNY New Paltz, L. David Rooney ("Rooney"), Vice-President for Student Affairs at SUNY New Paltz, Paul Zuckerman ("Zuckerman"), Associate Professor at SUNY New Paltz, and Jonathan Raskin ("Raskin"), Associate Professor at SUNY New Platz (collectively "Defendants"), violated rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.
The case arises out of a confrontation between Plaintiffs and Corinna Caracci ("Caracci"), an administrator at SUNY New Paltz, in late April 2006. During the confrontation, Plaintiffs accused Caracci of attempting to influence the student government elections, in which Plaintiffs were candidates. Based on that incident, Caracci filed harassment complaints against Plaintiff with both SUNY New Paltz and the town of New Paltz.
On June 2, 2006, a hearing on the matter was held before a campus hearing committee ("the Hearing Committee"), composed of two faculty members, Defendants Zuckerman and Raskin and one student, William Pizzano. That same day, the Hearing Committee issued a decision finding by clear and convincing evidence that Plaintiffs had harassed Caracci, as defined by SUNY New Paltz's rules.
On January 3, 2007, this Court issued an Order granting Plaintiffs' Motion for preliminary injunction and ordering that Plaintiffs be reinstated as students at SUNY New Paltz. Order (Dkt. No. 20).*fn2 As described in that Order, the decision to reinstate the Plaintiffs was based on the irreparable harm shown by Plaintiffs, as well as the likelihood that the denial of Plaintiffs' request for counsel at their disciplinary hearing violated due process. Id. at 6, 13-14. This Court also described in that Order that Plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed in their claims that they were denied due process because the Hearing Committee was biased or because they were not allowed to question witnesses directly. Id.
On March 5, 2007, Defendants filed the instant Motion seeking dismissal of the Complaint on the grounds that Plaintiffs' claims are without meritand the remaining Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. Motion to dismiss (Dkt.No. 26).
In evaluating a motion to dismiss, a court must treat the facts pled by the plaintiff as true. The facts alleged "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007). See also Ruotolo v. City of New York, -F.3d-, No. 06-3886-cv, 2008 WL 313795, at *3 (2d Cir. Feb. 6, 2008) (applying the Twombly standard to a First Amendment retaliation claim); Goldstein v. Pataki, --F.3d-, No. 07-2537-cv, 2008 WL 269100, at *4 (2d Cir. Feb. 1, 2008) (dismissing a constitutional claim for failing to make factual allegations which raise a right to relief above the speculative level); Port Dock & Stone Corp. v. Oldcastle Northeast, Inc., 507 F.3d 117, 121 (2d Cir. 2007) (citing Twombly to say that "a complaint must allege facts that are not merely consistent with the conclusion that the defendant violated the law, but which actively and plausibly suggest that conclusion."). Also, in evaluating a motion to dismiss, courts "are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1965 (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)).
Defendants argue that the claims against them must be dismissed because Plaintiffs fail to state a cognizable claim and because Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. Officials who exercise discretionary functions in public service are entitled to immunity for reasonable actions; this immunity protects officials from suit as well as from liability. Will v. Hallock, 546 U.S. 345, 352 (2006) (noting the "threatened disruption of governmental functions, and fear of inhibiting able people from exercising discretion in public service if a full trial were threatened whenever they acted reasonably in the face of law that is not 'clearly established'" (internal citations omitted)). See also Siegert v. Gilley, 500 U.S. 226, 232 (1991) (citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)). Accordingly, when qualified immunity has been pled, it is appropriate to decide the issue as early as possible. Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 228 (1991). See also Crawford -El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 597-8 (1998) ("the trial court must exercise its discretion in a way that protects the substance of the qualified immunity defense. It must exercise its discretion so that officials are not subjected to unnecessary and burdensome discovery or trial proceedings.").
There is no dispute that the actions at issue in this case were within the scope of Defendants' official capacities. Accordingly, if Defendants' conduct did "not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known," Defendants are entitled to immunity and dismissal of the claims against them. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. at 818, quoted by Gilles v. Repicky, 511 F.3d 239, 243 (2d Cir. 2007).
The first step in a qualified immunity inquiry is to determine whether the alleged facts demonstrate that a defendant violated a constitutional right. If the allegations show that a defendant violated a constitutional right, the next step is to determine whether that right was clearly established at the time of the challenged action-- that is, "whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted." A defendant will be entitled to qualified immunity if either (1) his actions did not violate clearly established law or (2) it was objectively reasonable for him to believe that his actions did not violate clearly established law.
Moore v. Andreno, 505 F.3d 203, 208 (2d Cir. 2007) (quoting Iqbal v. Hasty, 490 F.3d 143, 152 (2d Cir. 2007)).
The threshold question for a qualified immunity analysis is if the facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, show that the defendant's conduct violated a constitutional right. Plaintiffs argue that they were denied due process in that they were denied the right to be represented by counsel, they were denied the right to question witnesses directly, and the hearing committee was not impartial.*fn3 Pl.'s Mem. of Law (Dkt. No. 2, Attach. 8) at 7-9. As with the rest of the analysis of a motion ...