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UWM Student Association v. Lovell

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

June 21, 2017

UWM STUDENT ASSOCIATION, LENA-ROSE M. ABU SAIF, ANDRES GABRIEL AGUILAR, ALLA R. AHMAD, JAMEELA AL-ASMAR, EMMA BORKOWSKI, PHILLIP A. COCHRAN, GONZALO COUTO-LAIN, KEITH CRUM, PAUL GARNI, USMAN GHAFFAR, REBECCA L. HADRIAN, FLAUNTAJIA HARRIS, BRITTNEY HENRY, LAWRENCE W. IVORY, JR., SAMUEL A. JADIN, CASANDRA JOHNSON, NORIELLE T. JOHNSON, KAYLA BRIANNE KAPLAN, THOMAS KELLY, HEIDI W. LAGERMAN, DANIEL S. LAUGHLAND, KARINA D. LEMPERT, REBECCA LILLIE, BRENT LINDQUIST, MICHAEL LUDWIG, JONNELLI N. NAVES-GONZALEZ, DHARA PAREKH, ALEX PARTEE, SHREYA PATNAIK, SYED A. QADIR, VINCE CASIMIR ROLBIECKI, LEYTON SCHIEBEL, ALIZAR S. B. SALEEM, TREVOR THOMAS SCHERMERHORN, WILLIAM J. SCHMIDT, TAYLOR Q. SCOTT, AHMED SHEHADEH, MOHAMMAD SAMIR SIDDIQUE, RYAN THOMAS STETZ, ANDREW CARLYLE URBAN, KIARA A. WILSON, KORINA YEE, and ALAN D. EISENBERG, Plaintiffs,
v.
DR. MICHAEL LOVELL, BOARD OF REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN SYSTEM, STUDENT ASSOCIATION AT UWM, DR. MICHAEL LALIBERTE, DAVID STOCKTON, RICHARD R. THOMAS, THOMAS G. MCGINNITY, HEATHER HARBACH, PAHOUA XIONG, ANTHONY M. DEWEES, CARLA GREVE, RYAN SORENSON, NIKOLAUS P. RETTINGER, III, MARK A. MONE, EDWARD C. MELCHIOR, NICOLE HEINEN, CAMILLE RIDGEWAY, ROBIN JENS, JOHN BEHLING, MARK BRADLEY, JOSE DELGADO, TONY EVERS, MICHAEL FALBO, MARGARET FARROW, EVE HALL, NICOLAS HARSY, TIM HIGGINS, EDMUND MANYDEEDS, REGINA MILLNER, JANICE MUELLER, DREW PETERSON, CHARLES PRUITT, ANICKA PURATH, JOSE VASQUEZ, DAVID WALSH, GERALD WHITBURN, and UW- ILWAUKEE PUBLIC RECORDS CUSTODIAN, Defendants.

          ORDER

          J.P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge.

         In this action, Plaintiffs, who are or were students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (“UWM”), assert numerous causes of action relating at their core to an alleged conspiracy by UWM administrators to denigrate the rights and powers of the student government. Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint, and for the reasons stated below, their motion will be granted.

         Before proceeding to the analysis of Defendants' motion to dismiss, the Court notes that the instant motion was filed on December 21, 2015, and was fully briefed as of February 23, 2016, not counting other supplemental filings Defendants and Plaintiffs have made throughout the pendency of the motion. As of April 17, 2017, the date this matter was reassigned to this branch of the Court, the motion had not been decided. Such delay is inexplicable and thus unwarranted. It works to the detriment of the Court, the parties, and the instructions of Congress in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 1 that the courts of the United States must endeavor to secure the “just, speedy, and inexpensive determination” of every action. Fed.R.Civ.P. 1. The Court now makes good on that obligation by issuing this long-overdue ruling.

         1. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are drawn from the allegations in the Third Amended Complaint. Because of the prodigious length of that document, and because the Court's disposition of the matter does not turn on its minutiae, the Court will give a high-level summary of the allegations and legal claims.

         All Plaintiffs were, at the time of the relevant events, students at UWM. At UWM, there previously existed a student government body known as the Student Association (“SA”), which was organized pursuant to Wis.Stat. § 36.09(5).[1] The events of this case arise primarily from a break in that body in 2013, wherein Plaintiffs' group, UWM Student Association (“PSA”), and another group, Student Association at UWM (“DSA”), claimed to represent the continuation of the original SA. Defendants are mostly UWM employees, including the chancellor, vice chancellor, records custodians, members of the Board of Regents, and others, who allegedly worked to undermine the PSA and empower their preferred group, the DSA.

         The third amended complaint sets forth seven causes of action, each relating to separate episodes in what Plaintiffs see as an overarching conspiracy to deprive them of their right to organize as students. First, Plaintiff Daniel Laughland (“Laughland”) won the 2012 election for SA president. During the campaign Laughland made statements critical of the UWM administration. After his victory, UWM vice chancellor, Defendant Dr. Michael Laliberte (“Laliberte”) told Laughland he would not be allowed to serve as president. Laughland, in apprehension of Laliberte's power to deny him payment for the position and in the belief that Laliberte had the support of chancellor Dr. Michael Lovell (“Lovell”), resigned from the position. Laughland raises a claim of retaliation for his exercise of free speech, in violation of the First Amendment, and deprivation of due process of law, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

         A similar episode undergirds Plaintiffs' second cause of action. Nathan Uibel (“Uibel”) was elected SA president in April 2013. Plaintiff Vince Rolbiecki (“Rolbiecki”) was to serve as his vice president, and Plaintiffs Mohammad Siddique (“Siddique”) and Taylor Scott (“Scott”) had “binding agreements” with Uibel providing that they would be appointed to paid executive positions in SA. All three made statements critical of the administration during the campaign. On May 3, 2013, Lovell issued a letter indicating that he would not recognize the results of the 2013 SA elections. Laliberte supported Lovell's plan by organizing an “outside review” of the elections, which turned out to be negative, in order to provide pretext to question the elections. Others participated in Lovell's plan to reject the 2013 SA elections as well. An interim “Board of Trustees” of the DSA (the “Board of Trustees”) was formed to exercise the powers of the prior SA. Like Laughland in 2012, here these three Plaintiffs claim that they were denied the benefits of their positions in the SA in retaliation for their speech and without due process.

         The third cause of action appears to be a continuation of the second. In June 2013, Siddique applied for a position on the Board of Trustees that purported to act in the SA's stead. His application was denied by Defendant David Stockton (“Stockton”), Student Government Relations Coordinator and Director of the Student Association Professional Staff Office of UWM, in retaliation for his speech in favor of expanding student rights. Scott would have applied to a Board position, too, but after Siddique was rejected, he thought it would be futile to apply. Both applicants were allegedly “among the most qualified” based on their prior SA service. Additionally, almost a year later a UWM official sent an email to student union staff disparaging the “old SA, ” which Plaintiffs say was directed at them specifically. Siddique and Scott assert that these actions were contrary to their due process and free speech rights.

         In the fourth cause of action, Plaintiffs turn to Plaintiff Gonzalo Couto-Lain (“Couto-Lain”), who was elected chair of the Board of Trustees in June 2013. Stockton apparently obstructed Couto-Lain's duties by refusing to provide information he was duty-bound to provide, such as former SA governing documents. This appears to have been done in retaliation for Couto-Lain's suggestion that the Board of Trustees should have independent counsel and that the student government should advocate for students in conflicts with the administration or faculty. In September 2013, Stockton, under threat of withholding payment for Board positions and with the support of Lovell and Laliberte, coerced the other Board members to call for Couto-Lain's resignation. Couto-Lain resigned, and complains that he suffered retaliation for his speech and deprivation of due process.

         The fifth cause of action concerns allegations that UWM officials wrongfully investigated and sanctioned students, including Scott and Siddique, for fabricated instances of nonacademic misconduct. These trumped-up charges were allegedly made in response to the students' critiques of administration policy. It appears that some or all of these misconduct charges were related to Scott and Siddique's efforts to run the PSA as their own alternative to the SA, in defiance of the DSA's takeover of that role. In particular, Siddique was sanctioned for representing that he was a part of the PSA and that the PSA was the legitimate successor to the SA. He was sanctioned by being forced to issue a statement repudiating this belief, a sanction that was upheld on appeal to the chancellor and then to the UW Board of Regents. Scott was threatened with similar sanctions in 2014 unless he declined to re-enroll as a student. Scott and Siddique contend that the disciplinary proceedings and sanctions ultimately imposed were undertaken in retaliation for their speech and did not comport with due process as provided by either the Fourteenth Amendment or the Wisconsin administrative code.

         Next is the sixth cause of action, which, for reasons explained further below, is the centerpiece of this lawsuit and the foundation on which all other claims rest. In this count, Plaintiffs allege that from at least April 2012 onward, all Defendants “have collectively and individually engaged in a course of conduct of interfering with the rights of UWM students to organize themselves into a student government and advocate for student interests.” (Docket #22 ¶ 93). Examples of such conduct include those alleged in the other six causes of action. According to Plaintiffs, these actions constituted an intentional violation of their rights as students under Wis.Stat. § 36.09(5) and a breach of the duty of fair representation owed to them by the DSA, among other things. Plaintiffs seek only declaratory and injunctive relief against Defendants in this cause of action.

         Also notable is that this count provides some additional details beyond those contained in the other counts. For instance, here Plaintiffs allege that Defendants like Laliberte, Lovell, and Stockton held meetings- sometimes behind closed doors-discussing how to manipulate the student government to support their interests and reject candidates for student government with positions contrary to their own. Further, by rejecting the 2013 SA elections, Defendants nullified several purportedly important pieces of student legislation that the rejected government had enacted. Additionally, Defendants exercised control over the Board of Trustees in order to force them to limit the power of student government at UWM. Moreover, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants interfered in the 2014 DSA elections, organized by the Board of Trustees, in order to promote the candidates of their liking. Finally, as suggested above, Defendants opposed the organization of the PSA at every turn.

         In the final cause of action, Plaintiffs allege that the UWM records custodian, Laliberte, Stockton, and the UW Board of Regents wrongfully denied them records requested pursuant to the Wisconsin Public Records Law, Wis.Stat. § 19.3119.19, without giving a reason for the denial or notice of their ability to seek judicial review. The count also includes allegations that Siddique requested, without citation to statute, that he be provided records of the disciplinary proceedings against him. The records requests were either denied or received an inadequate response.[2]

         2. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for dismissal of complaints which fail to state a viable claim for relief. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To state a viable claim, a complaint must provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). In other words, the complaint must give “fair notice of what the. . .claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citation omitted). The allegations must “plausibly suggest that the plaintiff has a right to relief, raising that possibility above a speculative level[.]” Kubiak v. City of Chicago, 810 F.3d 476, 480 (7th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted).

         In reviewing the complaint, the Court is required to “accept as true all of the well-pleaded facts in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.” Id. at 480-81. However, a complaint that offers “‘labels and conclusions'” or “‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). The Court must identify allegations “that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. at 679.

         3. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiffs' third amended complaint, like its predecessors, is rife with infirmities. The Court will discuss only those necessary to dispose of the complaint, and with it, the case as a whole.

         3.1 Previously Dismissed Defendants

         First, Plaintiffs have inappropriately joined certain Defendants in the third amended complaint whom the Court has already dismissed for failure to timely make service. See (Docket #13 at 3). This action was filed on May 31, 2014, in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. Wisconsin state law required that Defendants be served within ninety days of that date. Wis.Stat. § 801.02. No court can order that period of time enlarged. Id. ยง 801.15(2)(a). Plaintiffs failed to make service under Wisconsin law within that period as to Defendants Lovell, the UW Board of Regents, Heather ...


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