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Baird v. State University of New York

November 17, 2010

ALVIN C. BAIRD, PLAINTIFF,
v.
STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK; MARGARET BENKE, ALSO KNOWN AS MEG BENKE; EILEEN K. CORRIGAN; AND EMPIRE STATE COLLEGE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. Introduction

Pro se plaintiff Alvin C. Baird commenced this action under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,*fn1 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and New York State common law against defendants State University of New York, Meg Benke, Eileen Corrigan, and Empire State College, alleging race-based discrimination, violations of his Fourteenth Amendment rights, and negligence, all in connection with his expulsion from defendant Empire State College. (See Am. Compl., Dkt. No. 21.) Pending are defendants' motion for summary judgment, (Dkt. No. 62), and Baird's motions to strike certain evidence and for summary judgment, (Dkt. Nos. 65, 67). For the reasons that follow, defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part, and Baird's motions are denied.

II. Background

Pro se plaintiff Alvin C. Baird is a 32-year-old African American who resides in Maryland. (See Am. Compl. ¶ 1, Dkt. No. 21.) From November 1999 to May 22, 2006, Baird was a studentat defendant Empire State College in the school's Center for Distance Learning (CDL).*fn2 (See Def. SMF ¶ 2, Dkt. No. 62:2; Am. Compl. at 3, Dkt. No. 21.) During that time, defendant Meg Benke was the Dean of the CDL, and defendant Eileen Corrigan was Empire's Director of Student Financial Services. (See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 4, 5 Dkt. No. 21.) Empire is a state-operated institution of defendant State University of New York (SUNY). (See SUNY Resp. to Interrog. ¶ 1, Dkt. No. 75.)

During the period of Baird's enrollment, Empire required its students to make "satisfactory academic progress" (SAP) in order to remain eligible to enroll. (See Def. SMF ¶ 4, Dkt. No. 62:2; Defs. Ex. 1, Benke Letter at 1, Dkt. No. 62:10.) SAP was defined as earning the minimum number of credits expected for the number of terms the student was enrolled at Empire. (Def. SMF ¶ 4, Dkt. No. 62:2.) SAP was determined based on a previously-published table showing the minimum number of credits expected for the number of terms of enrollment. (Id. at ¶ 5.) The SAP calculation was limited to "enrollment credits," or credits earned at Empire, and did not take into account "advanced standing credits,"*fn3 which were not earned by successfully completing Empire courses. (See id. at ¶¶ 22-25.) Students failing to meet SAP would be identified by a computer run which matched the credits earned by each student with the number of semesters the student was enrolled. (Id. at ¶ 6.) For those students identified as falling below SAP, an automated letter would be generated, would be signed by the dean of the center in which the student was enrolled, and would be mailed to the student. (Id. at¶ 7.)

In July 2005, Baird was suspended from Empire for two months for sending a threatening e-mail to a faculty member. (Id. at ¶ 11.) At the time of his suspension, Baird was enrolled in a Business Ethics course. (See id. at ¶ 12.) The letter notifying Baird of his suspension stated that he would be given an opportunity to complete the Business Ethics course as an independent study once his suspension was lifted. (See id.) Baird's suspension was lifted in September 2005, and Dean Benke's staff made arrangements for Baird to complete the Business Ethics course as promised. (See Defs. SMF ¶ 13, Dkt. No. 62:2; Sept. Correspondence at 1-4, Dkt. No. 62:17.) Those arrangements included permitting Baird to use whatever work he had completed for the course prior to his suspension, and to continue the course at no additional charge. (See Defs. SMF ¶¶ 31, 32, Dkt. No. 62:2.) Baird's new instructor for the independent study was Dr. Michael Andolina. (See id. at ¶ 33.)

According to defendants, Baird was advised of the course arrangements on September 28, 2005. (See id. at ¶ 34.) Specifically, defendants point to an e-mail log indicating that Empire's Catherine Combs notified Baird via voice mail and e-mail that Dr. Andolina would be his instructor for the independent study and that Baird should contact him right away to discuss the course. (See id.) Baird claims that he did not receive either of these communications. (See, e.g., Pl. Resp. Mem. of Law at 17, Dkt. No. 84.)

Dr. Andolina claims that on October 3, 2005, he "contacted [Baird] and [e-mailed] him a learning contract for the Business Ethics course," requesting that Baird "contact him to discuss [it]." (Andolina Decl. ¶ 4, Dkt. No. 62:7.) Dr. Andolina further claims that Baird "did attempt to contact [him] on October 3, 2005 but [that he] was unable to take his call due to [his] involvement in another telephone call at the same time." (Id.) According to Dr. Andolina, he "had no further communication with [Baird] after October 3, 2005," and Baird "performed no work for the course that was shown to [him]." (Id. at ¶ 5.) Ultimately, Dr. Andolina "prepared and filed with the [Empire] registrar a final course outcome of 'ZW' (Administrative Withdrawal) since [Baird] had not engaged in significant learning activities throughout the term of the course." (Id.) Baird denies ever contacting or being contacted by Dr. Andolina. (See, e.g., Pl. Resp. Mem. of Law at 17, Dkt. No. 84; Baird Dep. at 62, Dkt. No. 62:33.)

On October 13, 2005, Dean Benke sent Baird a letter advising him that he was in "academic dismissal," explaining that he had earned only ninety credits when he should have earned ninety-four, and that the dismissal made him ineligible for re-enrollment. (See Oct. 13, 2005 Letter at 1, Dkt. No. 62:15.) Subsequently, however, Dean Benke reconsidered the dismissal and placed Baird on "extended academic warning" (EAW),*fn4 apparently because Baird was very close to completing his degree requirements. (See Defs. SMF ¶¶ 19-21, Dkt. No. 62:2.) In an October 18, 2005 letter to Baird, Dean Benke repeated that Baird had fallen below the school's SAP rate, but that he was being placed on EAW. (See id. at ¶ 21.) The letter further stated that failure to maintain SAP might affect his eligibility for financial aid. (See id.)

On March 1, 2006, Baird contacted Dean Benke and inquired about enrolling in the Business Ethics course for the Spring March term.*fn5 (See Defs. SMF ¶ 39, Dkt. No. 62:2.) Dean Benke responded that Baird could enroll in the course, but that, based on her conversation with defendant Corrigan, then Director of Financial Aid Services, he would be ineligible for financial aid and that the course would cost $817.40. (See id. at ¶¶ 40, 41.) According to Corrigan, Baird did not qualify for financial aid because he did not meet the SAP requirements, a prerequisite for financial aid eligibility. (See Corrigan Decl. ¶ 4, Dkt. No. 62:6.) Corrigan explained this to Baird in a May 17, 2006 letter, and notified him that his financial aid had been cancelled. (See May 17, 2006 Letter, Dkt. No. 62:32.)

On March 6, 2006, Baird responded to Dean Benke by e-mail, stating that the Federal Student Aid Program (FAFSA) informed him that he was eligible for financial aid. (See Defs. SMF ¶ 43, Dkt. No. 62:2.) The message went on to accuse Dean Benke of being vindictive toward him, attributing her vindictiveness to "[e]vil, bad-mindedness, paganism and spiritual wickedness." (Mar. 6, 2007 E-mail, Dkt. No. 62:20.) Further, in observing that Dean Benke was of Irish heritage, Baird stated that vindictiveness was in the Irish blood and the fabric of Irish culture; that Dean Benke was inherently evil; and that she wanted to infect everyone with her "IRA ideology." (See id.) The e-mail concluded with the following statements:

Your on a sinking ship and don't even realize it. Your days are number [sic] at your position. I am going to shame you, [Empire] and when I am finished with you, you will not be able to eat. Just like Jackkkkkkkkkk Abramoff. Trust me. It's personal and its not about business ethics. You'll see. (Id.) Finding "[Baird's] message to be threatening and harassing," and "[a]ware that [Baird] had twice been warned to be more appropriate in his communication with [Empire] staff,"*fn6 Dean Benke filed a complaint against Baird, charging that the "communication violated the terms of the college's student conduct policy." (Benke Decl. ¶ 14, Dkt. No. 62:5.)

Soon after the filing of the complaint, Carol Zajac, Dean of the Northeast Center, assumed the role of judicial officer and oversaw the process of adjudicating Dean Benke's complaint.*fn7 (See id. at ¶ 15.) On March 30, 2010, acting pursuant to Empire's Student Conduct Policy and Procedures, Dean Zajac determined that Dean Benke's allegation fell within the scope of the Policy on Student Conduct, and was serious enough to potentially warrant a sanction of suspension or expulsion. (Defs. SMF ¶ 51, Dkt. No. 62:2.) As a result of her determination, Dean Zajac referred the matter to a Student Conduct Committee consisting of two CDL faculty members and a CDL student. (Id. at ¶ 52.) The committee was responsible for holding a hearing on Dean Benke's allegation within thirty days, and for providing a written decision and rationale to Baird, Dean Benke, and Dean Zajac. (Id. at ¶ 53.) Dean Zajac sent Baird a copy of Dean Benke's complaint, as well as a copy of Empire's procedures concerning student conduct, and notice that the matter was being referred to the committee. (Id. at ¶ 54.)

The Student Conduct Committee held the required hearing on April 26 and May 12, 2006. (Id. at ¶ 55.) Dean Benke testified on the first day of the hearing. (Id. at 56.) Baird was not present for Dean Benke's testimony, but participated by telephone on the second hearing date. (Id. at ¶¶ 57, 58.) Prior to his participation, Baird was advised that he was entitled to have an advisor assist him at the hearing, and that he could refuse to answer questions-rights which were also specified in the written procedures previously provided by Dean Zajac. (Id. at ¶ 59.) Baird waived those rights and testified before the committee. (Id. at ¶ 60.)

Following the hearing, the committee issued its report and recommendation to Dean Zajac, which stated:

Mr. Baird's inability to control his behavior or appreciate, even now, that it was wrong makes it unlikely that he will refrain from similar conduct in the future. Therefore, to protect members of the college community from such threats of harassment and intimidation in the future, the committee concludes that the appropriate sanction is expulsion. (Id. at ¶ 62.) Dean Zajac concurred with the committee's recommendation and found expulsion to be the appropriate sanction. (Id. at ¶ 63.) In a letter dated May 22, 2006, Dean Zajac informed Baird of the committee's recommendation, provided him with a copy of its report, and explained that she concurred with the recommendation and that he was therefore expelled from the college. ...


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