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Harnois v. University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 30, 2019




         By way of a Third Amended Complaint, John Harnois, a former graduate student at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Dartmouth, is suing UMass Dartmouth and a host of UMass Dartmouth employees in their official and personal capacities.[1] Harnois alleges a series of violations associated with UMass Dartmouth's initiation and execution of a Title IX investigation into his conduct, and punitive measures taken in response to perceived deficiencies in Harnois’s application for admission.[2]

         Specifically, Harnois’s Third Amended Complaint sets out nineteen claims against defendants, in varying combinations: violation of Title IX (Count I); violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 owing to retaliation against Harnois for complaining about sex discrimination under Title IX; (Count II); denial of due process in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count III); denial of First Amendment rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count IV); the imposition on Harnois of an unconstitutionally vague and overbroad University protocol, and policies (Count V); defamation (Count VI); violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (MCRA) (Count VII); intentional interference with advantageous third party relations (Count VIII); negligence in disclosing confidential information (Count IX); breach of fiduciary duty in disclosing confidential information (Count X); invasion of privacy (Count XI); malicious prosecution and abuse of process (Count XII); breach of contract (Count XIII); breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing (Count XIV); promissory estoppel (Count XV); intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count XVI); negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count XVII); intentional interference with contractual relations (Count XVIII); and a civil conspiracy (Count XIX).

         For the reasons explained below, defendants’ Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) motion will be allowed as to Counts IX, XIII, XIV, and XVII. The court also dismisses under Rule 12(b)(1) claims against UMass Dartmouth and/or defendants acting in their official capacities as alleged in Counts III, IV, VI, VII, VIII, X, XI, XII, XV, XVI, XVIII, and XIX, but not those claims against defendants named in their individual capacities. Additionally, the court dismisses claims alleged in Count II against all defendants except for UMass Dartmouth.


         Defendants move to dismiss the Third Amended Complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).

When faced with motions to dismiss under both 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), a district court, absent good reason to do otherwise, should ordinarily decide the 12(b)(1) motion first. . . . It is not simply formalistic to decide the jurisdictional issue when the case would be dismissed in any event for failure to state a claim. Different consequences flow from dismissals under 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6): for example, dismissal under the former, not being on the merits, is without res judicata effect.

Ne. Erectors Ass’n of the BTEA v. Sec’y of Labor, 62 F.3d 37, 39 (1st Cir. 1995). “The party invoking the jurisdiction of a federal court carries the burden of proving its existence.” Murphy v. United States, 45 F.3d 520, 522 (1st Cir. 1995), quoting Taber Partners, I v. Merit Builders, Inc., 987 F.2d 57, 60 (1st Cir. 1993). In assessing whether that burden is met, a court “take[s] as true all well-pleaded facts in the plaintiffs’ complaints, scrutinize[s] them in the light most hospitable to the plaintiffs’ theory of liability, and draw[s] all reasonable inferences therefrom in the plaintiffs’ favor.” Fothergill v. United States, 566 F.3d 248, 251 (1st Cir. 2009).


         The Eleventh Amendment states that “[t]he judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another State, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.” U.S. Const. amend. XI. “The Supreme Court . . . has expanded the doctrine of sovereign immunity beyond the literal words of the Eleventh Amendment, holding that state governments, absent their consent, are not only immune from suit by citizens of another state, but by their own citizens as well.” Guillemard-Ginorio v. Contreras-Gomez, 585 F.3d 508, 529 n.23 (1st Cir. 2009), citing Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 728-729 (1999).

         A State entity similarly is immune from suit if it functions as an “arm of the state.” Coggeshall v. Massachusetts Bd. of Registration of Psychologists, 604 F.3d 658, 662 (1st Cir. 2010); In re Dupont Plaza Hotel Fire Litig., 888 F.2d 940, 942 (1st Cir. 1989). Whether an agency is in fact an “arm of the state” is determined by applying federal law. Regents of the Univ. of California v. Doe, 519 U.S. 425, 429 n.5 (1997).

         The University of Massachusetts “is a public institution established under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and is therefore an ‘arm’ of the state.” Ali v. Univ. of Massachusetts Medical Ctr., 140 F.Supp.2d 107, 110 (D. Mass. 2001); see also United States v. Univ. of Massachusetts, Worcester, 812 F.3d 35, 40 (1st Cir. 2016) (“[T]he statutory framework crafted by the Massachusetts legislature lends itself to the conclusion that the University of Massachusetts . . . is an arm of the state.”). Because a State, its agencies, and agency officials are not “persons” for purposes of § 1983, these entities are not subject to suit for money damages in the federal courts without the State’s consent or a clear abrogation of State sovereignty by Congress. Will v. Michigan Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 65-67 (1989) (“[A] State is not a ‘person’ within the meaning of § 1983. . . . We cannot conclude that § 1983 was intended to disregard the well-established immunity of a State from being sued without its consent.”); see also Caisse v. DuBois, 346 F.3d 213, 218 (1st Cir. 2003) (“Absent an explicit waiver from the state, the Eleventh Amendment bars ‘official capacity suits’ against state actors in federal court unless the suit seeks prospective injunctive relief.”); Maraj v. Massachusetts, 836 F.Supp.2d 17, 30 (D. Mass. 2011) (“Plaintiff’s MCRA claims against the Commonwealth . . . as well as against the individual [defendants] in their official capacities, fail on the threshold ground that the Commonwealth and its agencies cannot be sued under the MCRA.”).[3]

         Because under the Eleventh Amendment, defendants in this case may not be sued in their official capacities for money damages, the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the claims for such damages set out in: Counts III and IV (alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. 1983); Count VII (violation of the MCRA); Count X (breach of fiduciary duty in disclosing information); Count XV (promissory estoppel); and Count XIX (alleging civil conspiracy). The court dismisses under Rule 12(b)(1) Counts XIII and XIV, asserting contract claims against UMass Dartmouth, also on the basis of Eleventh Amendment immunity.

         The Massachusetts Torts ...

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