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Eric Hlavacek v. Ann Boyle

December 7, 2010

ERIC HLAVACEK, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ANN BOYLE, D.D.S., DEAN OF THE SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF DENTAL MEDICINE, IN HER INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES; BRUCE ROTTER, D.M.D., ASSOCIATE DEAN FOR ACADEMIC AFFAIRS OF THE SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF DENTAL MEDICINE, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES; ROBERT FROEMLING, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF DENTAL MEDICINE, SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF DENTAL MEDICINE, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES; CORNELL THOMAS, D.D.S., PROFESSOR OF DENTAL MEDICINE, SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF DENTAL MEDICINE, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES; DEBORAH DIXON, D.M.D., ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF APPLIED DENTAL ) MEDICINE, IN HER INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES; PAUL W. FERGUSON, PHD, PROVOST AND VICE CHANCELLOR OF ACADEMIC AFFAIRS OF SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES; PAUL PITTS, DIRECTOR OF OFFICE OF INSTITUTIONAL COMPLIANCE, SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY EDWARDSVILLE, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES; SHYRLENE CLARK- LANGSTON, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR OF HUMAN RESOURCES, SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY, IN HER INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES; VAUGHN VANDEGRIFT, CHANCELLOR OF SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY EDWARDSVILLE IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES; AND GLENN POSHARD, PRESIDENT OF SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITIES, DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff Eric Hlavacek filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action, claiming deprivation of procedural due process, First Amendment, and equal protection rights, and Defendants filed this instant motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The Court has reviewed the parties' arguments and finds that Mr. Hlavacek's action should be dismissed for failure to state a claim.*fn1 Defendants' motion to dismiss is GRANTED.

BACKGROUND

Mr. Hlavacek entered Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine ("the Dental School") for a four year program to obtain a doctorate of dental medicine in the fall semester of 2005. In his first semester, Mr. Hlavacek failed his neuroanatomy course and was placed on academic probation that spring. Mr. Hlavacek attempted the neuroanatomy course again in spring 2006, and again failed. Based on this failure, Defendant Bruce Rotter informed Mr. Hlavacek that he needed to re-enroll in the Dental School to retake the first year curriculum. Mr. Hlavacek did re-enroll and successfully completed take-two of his first semester. In January of 2007, Defendant Rotter notified Mr. Hlavacek via letter that he was in good academic standing.

In May 2007, Defendant Ann Boyle informed the first year class that the common student practice of reviewing previous examinations violated Dental School policy and federal and state law. Defendant Rotter consequently charged every member of the first year classSincluding Mr. HlavacekSwith violation of Dental School policy, scheduling every first year class member for a hearing on those charges. Mr. Hlavacek appeared for his hearing on August 6, 2007. Before that individual hearing, Defendant Boyle informed the first year class that they were required to re-take two finals before they could be considered second year students. A large number of studentsSby Mr. Hlavacek's estimation, approximately half of the first year class, including Mr. HlavacekSappealed that decision. Mr. Hlavacek claimed that Defendant Robert Froemling, an assistant professor, handed out a letter instructing students to withdraw their appeals, lest "the matters.continue" (Doc. 2 at 7). Mr. Hlavacek withdrew his appeal, and he passed the two re-examinations. Mr. Hlavacek did fail his dental materials class that spring. In July of 2007, Mr. Hlavacek was diagnosed with "longstanding pneumonia" which may have existed for "several months" prior to its diagnosis (Doc. 2 at 6). Mr. Hlavacek then informed his dental materials professor, Dr. Stephen D. Smith, not a named defendant, of his pneumonia, hoping to sway Dr. Smith to consider the pneumonia an "extenuating circumstance"Swhich the class syllabus stated would be considered in determining final grades. Dr. Smith did not alter Mr. Hlavacek's failing grade.

In the fall of 2007, Mr. Hlavacek again failed a final examination, this time in prosthondonics, and he also failed the re-take of that examination in December 2007. Mr. Hlavacek claims that Defendant Froemling, one of the three graders on the re-examination, insisted that Mr. Hlavacek fail. According to the complaint, "[t]wo other students, who had [also] failed a remediation examination for a practical course at [a] near passing grade, were passed" (Doc. 2 at 8). Mr. Hlavacek was informed of his failure during finals period, contrary to Dental School policy. He also failed microbiology and pharmacology in the fall semester of 2007. After these failures, Defendant Rotter informed Mr. Hlavacek that he was again on academic probation, and, on February 14, 2008, Defendant Boyle sent Mr. Hlavacek a letter dismissing him from the Dental School due to his academic performance.

Defendant Boyle sent another letter informing Mr. Hlavacek of a hearing on his dismissal, which Mr. Hlavacek attended on March 5, 2008 with a faculty representative of his choice. On March 12, 2008, Defendant Boyle informed Mr. Hlavacek via letter that his dismissal from the dental school would stand. That letter referenced a hearing of July 9, 2007 which never occurred and also falsely stated that Mr. Hlavacek had been on academic probation in the spring semester of 2007.*fn2 Mr. Hlavacek filed a grievance of his dismissal, alleging Dental School misconduct, to Defendants Pitts and Clark-Langston on March 26, 2008. Mr. Hvalacek requested that Defendant Pitt contact 14 specific witnesses. Defendant Pitt obtained statements from seven of those students, as the other seven were occupied with finals. After two months of investigation, Defendant Paul Ferguson informed Mr. Hlavacek there was no evidence to support the grievance of misconduct. Mr. Hlavacek's appeal of that outcome was denied. Independent of that grievance, Mr. Hvalacek appealed his dismissal and was informed in a letter from Defendant Dixon of a hearing on that appeal set for May 8, 2008. The letter stated that Mr. Hvalacek would not be represented by legal counsel or a faculty advocate at the appeal hearing. Following the appeal hearing, Mr. Hvalacek was informed of the denial of appeal. Mr. Hvalacek further appealed his dismissal to the Provost and Chancellor of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University, and finally to Southern Illinois University President Glenn PoshardSall appeals were denied.

Mr. Hlavacek filed this action alleging deprivation of equal protection, First Amendment rights, and procedural due process. He claims he had a constitutionally protected property and liberty interest in his continued education at the Dental School as a matter of contract. His equal protection claim states that Mr. Hlavacek was "required to adhere to a stricter policy than applied to other students similarly situated," and that "the rules and procedures for hearings and dismissal applicable to all other dental students were applied to them, but were not applied to Hlavacek" (Doc. 2 at 16). His procedural due process claim states that he was placed on academic probation and required to re-enroll without notice of what was required "to obtain enforcement of applicable Dental School policy and no opportunity for a hearing on that," and that he was not provided adequate notice of "the charges" of his dismissal, nor was he provided a fair hearing with neutral decision makers (Doc. 2 at 15-16). Mr. Hlavacek also raises a First Amendment claim, stating that Defendants deprived him of his right to petition "his Government for redress of grievances for his objection to Dean Boyle's false charges" (Doc. 2 at 16). In their motion to dismiss, Defendants argue that Mr. Hlavacek has not adequately pleaded a deprivation of any Constitutional rights. Defendants argue that Defendants' academic decisions should be given deference. They also claim that Mr. Hlavacek was not entitled to procedural due process for his academically-motivated dismissal from dental schoolSthough he nevertheless received process in the form of notice, hearing, and appealsSand there was a rational basis for that dismissal.

ANALYSIS

To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, - U.S. -, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009), quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. V. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Plausibility "asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. While "[s]pecific facts are not necessary," the pleaded facts must "give the defendant fair notice of what the.claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). The Seventh Circuit has succinctly elucidated post-Twombly pleading standards:

So, what do we take away from Twombly, Erickson, and Iqbal? First, a plaintiff must provide notice to defendants of her claims. Second, courts must accept a plaintiff's factual allegations as true, but some factual allegations will be so sketchy or implausible that they fail to provide sufficient notice to defendants of the plaintiff's claim. Third, in considering the plaintiff's factual allegations, courts should not accept as adequate abstract recitations of the elements of a cause of action or conclusory legal statements.

Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 581 (7th Cir. 2009). It is, therefore, "not enough to give a threadbare recitation of the elements of a claim without factual support." Bissessur v. Indiana Univ. Bd. Of Trs., 581 F.3d 599, 603 (7th Cir. 2009). Mr. Hlavacek's claims do not meet this burden and consequently fail to state a claim for which relief can be granted. The Court will address the insufficiency of Mr. Hlavacek's claims in turn.

First Amendment Claim

The Court construes Mr. Hlavacek's vague First Amendment claim as follows: he was not able to pursue his objection to the Dean's decision that all first year students must retake certain examinations in light of the students' practice of studying with previous examination, pursuant to a letter handed out (to all students) by Defendant Froemling stating that the matter would continue if their appeals were not withdrawn. However, even with this generous construction, the claim is not plausible. The pleaded facts themselves arrest any grounds on which this claim could rest. Mr. Hlavacek pleaded that he did in fact pursue a grievanceSas did many other dental studentsSand that he choseSalong with other studentsSto discontinue his grievance once the disputed exams had been rescheduled. Further, his account of the 'letter' merely seems to state the obvious: continuing to grieve the issue would undoubtedly cause the matter to continue. By Mr. Hlavacek's own pleaded facts, the reason he "withdrew" his grievance was because the reexaminations were already scheduled and he "had no choice" but to study for them. The complaint does not clearly ...


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