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Peters v. Molloy College of Rockville Centre

July 8, 2008

JOYCE PETERS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MOLLOY COLLEGE OF ROCKVILLE CENTRE, SUSAN VITALE (IN HER OFFICIAL AND INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES), DOLORES PARRY (IN HER OFFICIAL AND INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES), JEANNINE MULDOON (IN HER OFFICIAL AND INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES), AND RICHARD SCHURE (IN HIS OFFICIAL AND INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES),*FN1 DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hurley, Senior District Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Plaintiff Joyce Peters ("Plaintiff") filed the present action against defendants Molloy College of Rockville Centre ("Molloy College"), Susan Vitale ("Vitale"), Dolores Parry ("Parry"), and Jeannine Muldoon ("Muldoon") (collectively, "Defendants") claiming that she was discriminated against based on her race and in retaliation for her complaints of race discrimination. Defendants have moved to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND

The following facts are taken from the Complaint and are presumed true for purposes of this motion.

Plaintiff is an African-American female who was a candidate for a Master's Degree in nursing at Molloy College. Vitale is a professor at Molloy, Parry is the Associate Dean for Academic Support Services, and Muldoon is the Associate Dean of the Graduate Nursing Program. All three defendants are Caucasian women.

I. Plaintiff's Failure to Graduate

During the Fall of 2006, Plaintiff enrolled in a nursing course taught by Vitale entitled Research Methods and Designs. That class, which carried the designation of Nursing 555, was the final course requirement for Plaintiff to obtain her Masters Degree. In December 2006, Plaintiff submitted her final project for the course. Vitale gave Plaintiff a failing grade on this project and, as a result, Plaintiff was denied a Master's Degree.

According to the Complaint, the final project was a research proposal that was to count as 40% of the total grade in the course. After Plaintiff submitted her research proposal, Vitale "sent out an email falsely accusing Plaintiff of 'copying a completed study with data, results, analysis all completed by someone else.'" (Compl. ¶ 26.) The email was "published to at least Defendant Muldoon by email." (Id.)

Thereafter, Plaintiff met with Vitale, who accused Plaintiff of plagiarism and directed Plaintiff to resubmit her proposal via e-mail on or before December 15, 2006. Although Plaintiff objected to Vitale's accusations, she rewrote her proposal and e-mailed it to Vitale. On December 15, 2006, Vitale e-mailed Plaintiff "that Plaintiff's assignment did 'not meet passing requirements for the course.'" (Id. ¶ 30.) Plaintiff then asked for the requirements and requested that Vitale return her proposal and review it with her; Plaintiff's request was denied.

Plaintiff and Vitale arranged a meeting to discuss Plaintiff's failing grade. When Plaintiff arrived, she was surprised that Muldoon was also in attendance. Vitale and Muldoon interrogated Plaintiff about her proposal and accused her of plagiarism, asserting that Plaintiff's proposal mimicked a similar study being conducted by Muldoon's friend. When Plaintiff asked to see the study, Muldoon and Vitale refused to provide it. Plaintiff informed them that she felt their behavior was "abusive," that "she was the subject of discrimination," and that she was filing a grade appeal. (Id. ¶ 38.)

Thereafter, on December 19, 2006, Plaintiff filed a grade appeal with Parry. (Parry Aff., dated Nov. 7, 2007, Ex. D.)*fn2 Plaintiff's grade appeal details the submission of her research project and what happened with Muldoon and Vitale thereafter. (Id.) In her appeal, Plaintiff complains generally of "unjust and unfair treatment" and makes no reference to racism. (Id.)

On December 27, 2006, Plaintiff received a letter from Parry advising Plaintiff that "Vitale informed Parry of a 'possible' academic infraction [by Plaintiff] subject to disciplinary action." (Compl. ¶ 40.) On January 8, 2007, Plaintiff received a notice that her graduation had been denied because she was missing the requirement of Nursing 555 for which she had been graded an "F."

In response to her request for an appeal of her grade, Plaintiff was informed that she could meet with Parry on January 11, 2007. Plaintiff appeared at the meeting with her attorney. Parry refused to meet with Plaintiff so long as her attorney was present. Plaintiff was then told that no meeting would be allowed and that she should have her attorney contact Molloy's counsel. Plaintiff was given a letter signed by Parry stating as follows: "As discussed today, there are procedures available on campus for addressing Academic Infractions which Ms. Peters has not yet completed. You may contact our Attorney." (Id. ¶ 43.) The name and address of Molloy's counsel was provided.*fn3

On January 30, 2007, Molloy's counsel faxed a letter to Plaintiff's counsel stating: "The enclosed memorandum from the Associate Dean for Academic Services at Molloy College sets forth the procedures available to your client to resolve this matter." (Id. ¶ 47.) Attached to the fax was a two-page letter written by Parry, outlining several options Plaintiff had so that she could graduate. These options included continuing with the grade appeal process and/or attending a Nursing 555 course in the Spring 2007 session with another professor and resubmitting a new research proposal to Vitale. (Parry Aff., dated Nov. 7, 2007, Ex. G.) Plaintiff would also have to complete all sections of the "Big MITT Program." (Id.) Plaintiff was advised to meet with Parry to discuss these options.

On February 1, 2007, Plaintiff received a notice from the Molloy Registrar that she had not met the requirement for Nursing 555. The next day, counsel for Molloy sent Plaintiff's counsel a memorandum suggesting that Plaintiff meet with Parry "'in order that she may complete the process prior to the end of the present semester.'" (Compl. ¶ 49.) Plaintiff's counsel responded that Plaintiff was indeed interested in going forward with the "process" and advised that Plaintiff felt that she was the "'subject of discriminatory, defamatory and retaliatory treatment . . . [.]'" (Id. ¶ 50.)

More correspondence ensued between counsel. On February 21, 2007, counsel for Molloy indicated that Plaintiff "had no 'legal remedies', and that [Plaintiff] had not commenced 'the process.'" (Id/ ¶ 52.) Plaintiff's counsel responded by "once again" offering to have Plaintiff meet with Parry with each party having a witness present. (Id. ¶ 53.) No response was received.

II. Pattern of Discrimination/Dr. Frieda Pemberton

The Complaint asserts that Defendants engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination directed at African-Americans. For example, Plaintiff alleges that she "learned from her fellow students that Caucasian students and others were and are judged and graded on a different basis th[a]n [P]laintiff." (Id. ¶ 20.) Plaintiff further alleges that "over the past two years African-American graduate nursing students have lodged complaints that their papers have been graded and evaluated more harshly than that of white students. Upon information and belief these complaints were not taken seriously." (Id. ¶ 63.)

The only remaining allegations pertaining to alleged discrimination involve an African-American professor at Molloy, Dr. Frieda Pemberton. In the Spring of 2006, Plaintiff, along with other African-American students, became aware of attempts by Dr. Teresa Aprigliano to undermine and question the competency of Dr. Pemberton by, for example, encouraging students to complain about her. On April 26, 2006, Plaintiff wrote a letter to the President of Molloy and expressed her concern over Dr. Aprigliano's actions. No written response was ever received by Plaintiff to this letter; however, Plaintiff alleges that "upon information and belief Defendants Vitale, Muldoon and Parry were all aware and/or became aware of Dr. Aprigliano's actions and the opposition voiced by Plaintiff." (Id. ¶ 62.)

The Complaint also alleges that in 2005 and 2006, Plaintiff voiced her concern over allegedly false accusations and complaints lodged against Dr. Pemberton by Caucasian students. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Dr. Pemberton had a skirmish with a Caucasian student, who failed to obtain a mandated signed contract to establish her clinical practice requirement. After the student complained, she was removed from Dr. Pemberton's class and placed in a class by herself with Muldoon, who accepted her unsigned contract.

Plaintiff further alleges that the administration at Molloy College supported false accusations made against Dr. Pemberton by four Caucasian students who accused Dr. Pemberton of being racist. Plaintiff alleges that after she complained "about the improper treatment of Dr. Pemberton by Molloy and its administration" (id. ¶ 74), Dr. Pemberton was removed from teaching graduate level nursing courses and reassigned to teach at the undergraduate level. Plaintiff alleges that "[t]his differential treatment and willingness to ignore rules and accommodate a white student by Molloy and Defendant Muldoon, in disregard for the position taken by an African-American professor [are] part of an ongoing pattern of preferential treatment given to white students and abusive actions taken against African-Americans generally." (Id. ¶ 73.)

III. The Complaint

The Complaint asserts six causes of action: (1) violations of 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VI"); (2) violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("Section 1981"); (3) breach of contract; (4) defamation; (5) violations of the New York Executive Law; and (6) violations of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1985 and 1986 ("Sections 1985 and 1986"). In addition, the Complaint generally alleges a claim of retaliation. Defendants move to dismiss the Complaint in its entirety. For the reasons indicated below, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

DISCUSSION

I. Motion to Dismiss: Legal Standards

Rule 8(a) provides that a pleading shall contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). The Supreme Court recently clarified the pleading standard applicable in evaluating a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). In Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, -- U.S. --, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007), the Court disavowed the well-known statement in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957) that "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Id. at 45-46. ...


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