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Siddique v. Laliberte

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

April 10, 2019



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

         This action arises from a contested student government election at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (“UWM”). On July 2, 2018, Plaintiff submitted a fourth amended complaint alleging that his civil rights were violated when Dr. Michael Laliberte, (“Laliberte”), David Stockton (“Stockton”), and Richard R. Thomas (“Thomas”) (collectively, “Defendants”) excluded him from student government in retaliation for his protected speech regarding students' rights to self-governance. (Docket #55).[1] On January 15, 2019, Defendants moved for summary judgment. (Docket #70). The motion is now fully briefed. For the reasons explained below, the Court finds in favor of the Defendants and will grant their motion for summary judgment.[2]


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that the Court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Boss v. Castro, 816 F.3d 910, 916 (7th Cir. 2016). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit” under the applicable substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute of fact is “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. The Court construes all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-movant. Bridge v. New Holland Logansport, Inc., 815 F.3d 356, 360 (7th Cir. 2016). The Court must not weigh the evidence presented or determine credibility of witnesses; the Seventh Circuit instructs that “we leave those tasks to factfinders.” Berry v. Chi. Transit Auth., 618 F.3d 688, 691 (7th Cir. 2010). The party opposing summary judgment “need not match the movant witness for witness, nor persuade the [C]ourt that [his] case is convincing, [he] need only come forward with appropriate evidence demonstrating that there is a pending dispute of material fact.” Waldridge v. Am. Hoechst Corp., 24 F.3d 918, 921 (7th Cir. 1994).

         2. RELEVANT FACTS

         Plaintiff was a student at UWM from fall 2011 to spring 2016, during which time he was very active in student government. All three defendants worked for UWM's administration during that time. Laliberte worked in the Student Affairs department; Stockton worked as a “Student Government Relations Coordinator” or a “Student Service Coordinator;” and Thomas served as the Director of the Student Union. Stockton, who reported to several people in the administration including Laliberte, was employed to provide advice and services to the Student Association (“SA”), a student government body.[3] Plaintiff was a well-known member of the SA, and an outspoken opponent of the university's leadership. He was a tireless advocate for students' rights to self-govern, and promoted student government autonomy from UWM's administration. Plaintiff helped wage a successful university legislative campaign to defund Stockton's position. He also helped pass student legislation that withdrew support for construction for a new student union. In the 2012-2013 school year, he worked with a group of students in the SA to elect more agents of change into leadership positions. The campaign was successful, and in spring 2013, victors aligned with Plaintiff's causes were elected to student government offices. These activities, and Plaintiff in particular, caused great chagrin to Thomas, Laliberte, and Stockton, who desired a student government that was more collaborative with and deferential to the administration.

         Following UWM's student government election, UWM's Chancellor commissioned a review of the election results by two University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (UWW) staff members and one UWW student. Based on this investigation, the Chancellor concluded that the election results were invalid. Plaintiff took issue with the integrity of the review and the conclusion. He provides evidence that Stockton was at least minorly involved in the investigation. (Docket #80-1 at 3).

         On May 29, 2013, the UWM Student Court enjoined the supposed victors from taking office, and mandated a new election be held in October 2013. In the interim, the Student Court determined that a student Board of Trustees would govern in lieu of the SA. The Student Court established a process by which students could apply for positions as representatives to the Board of Trustees. Shortly thereafter, an online application for Board of Trustee representative positions was made available. The Student Court's orders were issued in consultation with the administration, in which Defendants played an active role. The application form for the Board of Trustees positions enumerated qualifications that applicants would need to meet in order to be appointed as representatives, but did not explicitly include a minimum enrollment requirement. (Docket #89 at 7).

         The Board of Trustees representative contract contained additional requirements of student representatives. It required student representatives to maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0, be in good standing with the school, and read and sign the contract. There is an issue of fact as to whether this contract, with these requirements, actually accompanied the earliest iteration of the application. This is not material. It is undisputed that the contract did not indicate that the office would check for enrollment. (Docket #89 at 8).

         Stockton screened applicants for their eligibility as Board of Trustee representatives, and forwarded all eligible applications to the Student Court. Stockton acknowledges that he was active in the eligibility assessment process, in which he checked for GPA, enrollment, and disciplinary standing, then created an Excel sheet of all eligible and ineligible applicants . (Docket #80-1 at 5-6). He also helped draft the contract and a code of conduct, and worked very long hours throughout the process. (Docket #80-1 at 15).

         Plaintiff completed the online application form and submitted it through UWM's online portal for student groups. Plaintiff was enrolled during the spring 2013 semester, which ended on May 19, 2013. As of June 2013, he had not enrolled in any summer 2013 or fall 2013 semester courses. Plaintiff did not enroll for the fall 2013 semester until August 19, 2013. Plaintiff admits that he was not enrolled at UWM in June 2013, but he was nevertheless registered as a student (i.e., he had paid the registration fee to reserve his place at the university). Ostensibly because Plaintiff was not, at the time of his application, currently enrolled as a student, he did not meet the criteria for a Board of Trustees representative position. Plaintiff received notice of his application's rejection by email on June 23, 2013. The rejection letter listed possible reasons for the rejection, one of which was insufficient enrollment. Immediately after Plaintiff received notice of his application's rejection, he began to suspect that it was in retaliation for his critical speech about the administration.

         Throughout the university system, there is a policy requiring students to meet enrollment criteria before they can be involved in certain extra-curricular activities. The policy in effect at the time of these events, (the “F50 policy”), required “all leadership position in the organizations be held by students enrolled on a fee-paying basis at least half-time. . .‘half-time' status means enrollment for a minimum of six credits as an undergraduate student. . .” (Docket #80-6 at 22). The UWM Student Status Determination Policy states that a half-time student in the spring or fall must be enrolled in 6-11 credits, while a half-time student in the summer only needs to be enrolled in 3-5 credits. (Docket #80-7 at 15). (By contrast, a full-time student in the fall or spring requires a minimum of 12 credits, but only 6 credits in the summer.) Id. The Status Determination Policy also states that “[i]n order to be fully enrolled for a term, a student must be enrolled as of the day after the add deadline in that term; prior to that date, a student is considered registered but not fully enrolled.” Id. at 16 (emphasis added). Thus, in order for either a full-time or a half-time student to be considered “fully enrolled, ” they must be enrolled as of the day after the add deadline in that term.

         The deadline for adding/dropping courses for fall semester was September 16, 2013. (Docket #80-8 at 8, 11). Throughout that summer, it seems there were a series of add/drop deadlines based on the particular summer session in which a person was enrolled. Id. at 4. Plaintiff has provided some evidence that the F50 policy requiring students in organizations to be enrolled in at least 6 credits was inconsistently applied to continuing students over summer sessions. Specifically, former student government members attested that they were not aware of the school actively checking a student's enrollment status, or permitting or revoking permission to participate in a student group on that basis. (Docket #86 at 2, Docket #84 at 1-2). One affiant attested that, to his best recollection, he was not “fully enrolled” when he was selected to serve on the Board of Trustees, because he was a new student who had not been at UWM the previous semester. (Docket #85 at 2-3). He remembers that he, like Plaintiff, had paid the registration fee, but did not select classes until later in the summer. Id.

         When the newly formed Board of Trustees convened, Stockton and Laliberte cautioned new representatives against listening to “old SA” members, who were characterized as being disruptive and intimidating. (Docket 80-1 at 17-18). Plaintiff was referred to by name at least once, and was called “The Enforcer” of the “old SA” by Laliberte. Id. at 18. Stockton and Laliberte also spoke about the nefarious activities of the “old SA, ” and mentioned incidents such as sexual harassment, ...

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