District Court rejects breach of contract, due process violations claims against Montgomery County Community College

By Nicholas Malfitano | May 17, 2016

PHILADELPHIA – Per a recent federal court opinion, a former student of Montgomery County Community College brought charges of breach of contract, and procedural and substantive due process against the college unsuccessfully.

Judge Cynthia M. Rufe decreed MCCC would be partially granted their motion for judgment on the pleadings as it related to the breach of contract and substantive due process counts, and plaintiff Jason Norris would not be permitted to amend his complaint.

Norris’s amended complaint alleged he was a student at MCCC from 2012 until March 15, 2013, when MCCC supposedly expelled him in violation of his rights to procedural and substantive due process. Norris alleges MCCC failed to follow its own Code of Conduct when it gave him two disciplinary warnings, placed him on probation, extended his probation beyond one year, and expelled him.

Norris also alleges that this discipline was instituted due to “personal animus”, and in an effort to retaliate against him for complaints he filed against a MCCC security officer and for appealing the earlier disciplinary actions.

Norris claims the improper discipline began in 2012, when he was given a verbal warning for alleged harassment of a female student, without receiving a hearing or the warning in writing as required by the Code. On Feb. 11, 2013, Norris alleges he was harassed by a security officer in the computer lab in retaliation for complaints Norris had filed against the officer.

On Feb. 18, 2013, Norris claims he was given a written warning for alleged misconduct in the computer lab, without a hearing or any other form of due process – and was then placed on disciplinary probation, again without a hearing, for an incident in which another student, unprovoked, punched Norris.

“The other student received no punishment. Norris says he appealed the disciplinary probation, and in response to his appeal, received a letter from MCCC on March 5, 2013 extending the probationary period, even though the Code limits the probationary period to a maximum of one year. The letter also informed Plaintiff that any additional violations of the Code would result in his expulsion,” Rufe said.

Finally, MCCC expelled Norris on March 15, 2013 after he allegedly lost his composure when a professor wrongly accused him of plagiarism.

“The dismissal letter cited this incident as well as the other alleged incidents, for which Norris had already been punished, as the reason for his expulsion. Again, Norris was not provided a hearing, and the dismissal letter stated that Norris had no right to appeal the decision,” Rufe stated.

Norris’ amended complaint alleges two claims: one for violations of procedural due process and a second for violations of substantive due process, but MCCC argues the complaint fails to state a claim that MCCC violated Norris’s right to substantive due process. Also, MCCC contended the proposed complaint includes allegations that are barred by the statute of limitations.

Rufe first ruled on Norris’s motion to amend and his right to do so, given Norris had to allege he was deprived of a property interest that is fundamental under the Constitution, and that this deprivation was arbitrary or irrational.

“Plaintiff has not demonstrated that continued college enrollment is ‘deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions’ or that it is an interest ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty like personal choice in matters of marriage and family,” Rufe said. “While the Court agrees with plaintiff that the ability to pursue one’s educational and career goals is important, this is not sufficient to establish that the interest is fundamental.”

“As a result…the Court holds that there is no fundamental right to continued college enrollment. Plaintiff has therefore failed to state a claim for a violation of substantive due process,” Rufe stated.

As far as the statute of limitations connected to his suit, which is two years, Rufe decided that “allegations about discipline that occurred before the statute of limitations period cannot serve as the basis for a claim that plaintiff’s right to procedural due process was violated.”

“Finally, amendment to include an allegation as to when plaintiff filed his complaint is not warranted because the record is unopposed as to when the complaint was filed,” Rufe explained.

“For the reasons stated above, the Court will deny plaintiff’s motion to amend the complaint. Plaintiff will be permitted to correct his complaint to include allegations as to the procedures required by the Code of Conduct and Code of Ethics in effect after March 2, 2013 and whether these procedures were followed, and to correct the prayer for relief to include reasonable litigation costs, which defendant does not contest,” Rufe said.

“As plaintiff has failed to state a claim for a violation of his right to substantive due process, defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings will be granted. An appropriate order will follow,” Rufe concluded.

The plaintiff is represented by Jeffrey B. First in Philadelphia.

The defendant is represented by Steven K. Ludwig and Rachel J. Gallagher of Fox Rothschild, also in Philadelphia.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:15-cv-04741

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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