Knapp v. Junior College Dist. of St. Louis County, Mo., 64114

Decision Date26 April 1994
Docket NumberNo. 64114,64114
Citation879 S.W.2d 588
Parties93 Ed. Law Rep. 421 Carol A. KNAPP, Plaintiff/Appellant, v. The JUNIOR COLLEGE DISTRICT OF ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MISSOURI, d/b/a St. Louis Community College At Meramec, Defendant/Respondent.
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals

Thomas M. Blumenthal, Love, Lacks & Paule, P.C., St. Louis, for plaintiff-appellant.

Kathi L. Chestnut, Evans & Dixon, St. Louis, for defendant-respondent.

KAROHL, Judge.

Plaintiff, a junior college student, appeals after the trial court dismissed Counts II and III of her three-count petition filed against the school she attended. Plaintiff does not appeal a previous order dismissing Count I. Count II pleaded a case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging defendant, St. Louis Community College at Meramec, deprived her of her constitutional right of freedom of speech and rights to due process of law under color of law. Count III alleged a claim under § 536.150 RSMo 1986, within The Administrative Procedure and Review Act, for review of a decision to suspend plaintiff for the remainder of the Fall 1992 semester.

We find the court erred by dismissing Count II as it relates to a First Amendment violation only. It was also error to dismiss Count III, which states a cause of action. We remand for further proceedings in accord with this opinion.

This case comes to us after the trial court dismissed the petition for failure to state a cause of action. In determining the sufficiency of a petition which has been successfully challenged by a motion to dismiss, we give the petition its broadest intendment, treat all facts alleged in the petition as true, construe all those allegations liberally and in plaintiff's favor, and then determine if there is any ground upon which plaintiff may be entitled to relief. Detling v. Edelbrock, 671 S.W.2d 265, 267 (Mo.1984), State ex inf. Riederer v. Collins, 799 S.W.2d 644, 647 (Mo.App.1990). Plaintiff's petition may be dismissed for failure to state a claim only if it appears plaintiff could not prove any set of facts which would entitle her to relief. Y.G. and L.G. v. Jewish Hosp. of St. Louis, 795 S.W.2d 488, 494 (Mo.App.1990). We must decide whether the alleged facts, construed liberally, involve principles of substantive law and inform defendant of what plaintiff would attempt to prove at trial. Matyska v. Stewart, 801 S.W.2d 697, 699-700 (Mo.App.1991).

According to her petition, Carol A. Knapp attended St. Louis Community College at Meramec on a full-time basis in the fall of 1992. Plaintiff organized and presided over a student organization espousing one view on a highly controversial issue. Because of her views, she was systematically harassed by both students and college employees at the direction of college staff members. One such example occurred on October 6, 1992 when students and staff of the college "created an incident" during which plaintiff allegedly assaulted a college staff member. The staff member did in fact later bring assault charges against plaintiff.

After this incident, plaintiff contacted local media reporters to complain about the manner in which she had been treated by the college. After plaintiff contacted the media, and two weeks after the incident, the dean of student services notified plaintiff she was suspended for the remainder of the fall semester. At plaintiff's request, a hearing occurred on November 20, 1992, at which her suspension was reviewed.

The hearing took place at the college before a committee comprised of college faculty, administration, staff and students. The hearing was conducted according to rules and procedures set out in a college handbook. The handbook provides that hearings may be individually tailored in accord with the seriousness of the offense(s). However, they must comport with fundamental standards of procedural fairness and substantive justice. According to the rules, while the accused party may hire an attorney, neither party has a right to cross examine witnesses. The hearing may be private and closed to observers if requested in writing by the accused, or if the committee or hearing officer believes an audience may disrupt the proceedings or intimidate a witness.

At the hearing, plaintiff and her attorney were not allowed to cross examine or question witnesses who supported the charges brought against her. Therefore, she was denied the opportunity to test the direct testimony or demonstrate any bias or prejudice. However, "others" were allowed to do so. No witnesses were placed under oath. The college did not provide plaintiff, prior to the hearing, with copies of documents and statements provided to the hearing committee. Plaintiff was not allowed to have Steve Brady, the principal investigator for the college, attend the hearing. No one formally requested a closed hearing and the hearing was not ordered closed. However, plaintiff was not allowed to have members of the public attend the hearing.

On November 23, 1992, the committee notified plaintiff of its decision to deny her appeal. Plaintiff thereafter appealed its decision to the college president. He upheld the decision. Finally, plaintiff appealed to the college chancellor, who also upheld the suspension. Plaintiff has exhausted all her administrative remedies.

On February 12, 1993, plaintiff filed a three-count petition challenging defendant's actions. The trial court, sua sponte, dismissed Count I of the petition on March 11, 1993. Plaintiff does not appeal this dismissal. On May 7, 1993, the trial court, in a one-sentence order, sustained defendant's motion to dismiss Counts II and III. Defendant's motion contained broad, sweeping conclusions. None were supported by citation to legal authority. Because the trial court gave no explanation, we assume it dismissed the case for at least one of the grounds alleged in defendant's motion to dismiss. State ex inf. Riederer v. Collins, 799 S.W.2d 644, 647 (Mo.App.1990). We will affirm the dismissal if any of defendant's grounds are valid. Id.

The dismissal was not simply a non-appealable dismissal of the petition only, because defendant's motion to dismiss was based on the premise that plaintiff could not state a cause of action. Dillaplain v. Lite Industries, Inc., 788 S.W.2d 530, 532 (Mo.App.1990). Therefore, we consider the dismissal a judgment on the merits and a final appealable order. Id. A final judgment is one that disposes of both all the parties and all the issues in a particular cause of action. Turnbow v. Southern Railway Co., 768 S.W.2d 556, 558 (Mo. banc 1989).

In plaintiff's first of three points of error, she claims the trial court's dismissal of Count II of her petition was error because it stated a cause of action authorized by 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 provides in pertinent part as follows:

Every person who, under color of any statute ... of any State ... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States ... to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law ... for redress.

The purpose of § 1983 is to deter or prevent persons with state authority from using that authority to deprive individuals of federally-guaranteed rights. Additionally, should such a deprivation occur, § 1983 provides a means whereby relief may be found to address the deprivation. Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, ----, 112 S.Ct. 1827, 1830, 118 L.Ed.2d 504 (1992). Both state and federal courts possess jurisdiction to hear 42 U.S.C. § 1983 cases. Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356, 358, 110 S.Ct. 2430, 2433, 110 L.Ed.2d 332 (1990).

Section 1983 should be used only to remedy violations of Constitutional guarantees and not simply errors of school officials. Prebble v. Brodrick, 535 F.2d 605, 617 (1976). The wisdom of discretionary acts of officials at tax-supported colleges or universities will not ordinarily be reviewed by the judiciary. These discretionary acts include the routine discipline of students, campus safety and order, fund allocation, educational policy and also time, place and manner restrictions on unofficial or extracurricular speeches and events. Brooks v. Auburn University, 296 F.Supp 188, 197 (1969), aff'd, 412 F.2d 1171 (1969).

The elements of a claim under § 1983 are as follows: 1) defendant deprived plaintiff of a right, privilege or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and 2) defendant was acting under the color of state law at the time of the conduct constituting the deprivation. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 149, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 1603, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970).

We find plaintiff's petition sufficiently alleged the college deprived her of a Constitutional right. Plaintiff alleged her suspension constituted a "veiled reaction" to her involving the local media in the on-campus incident and her views. This, her petition alleges, was an attempt by the college to "stifle her rights to free speech" as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Plaintiff pleaded facts which, if true, support a finding of denial of a Constitutional right to free speech protected by § 1983.

Additionally, the Junior College District, within which St. Louis Community College at Meramec belongs, was created and exists according to Missouri statutes, Chapter 178 RSMo (1986). Therefore, the alleged Constitutional deprivations by the college were governmental acts done under color of law.

Defendant's motion to dismiss did not provide specific grounds. It did not state any deficiency with plaintiff's allegation she was deprived of her right to free speech. It cited no legal authority to support broad, conclusory, all-inclusive statements found throughout the motion. We also find no assistance in the trial court's one-sentence order granting the motion....

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