Larrieux-Cruz v. Consejo de Educación de P.R.

Decision Date31 March 2020
Docket NumberCIVIL NO. 17-2030 (PAD)
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Puerto Rico

Delgado-Hernández, District Judge.

This is an action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 arising out of an educational organization's failed attempt to renew a license with the Consejo de Educación de Puerto Rico ("Consejo"). The U.S. Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") recommending that the case be dismissed. Because the court is persuaded that dismissal is appropriate, the Complaint is hereby DISMISSED.


Plaintiffs, Colegio Universitario de Mediación Profesional, Inc. ("CUMPI") and its owner and principal executive officer, Tomás Larriéux-Cruz, sued Consejo and Consejo's officers, questioning on federal constitutional grounds the Consejo's decision to: (1) deny a license renewal request to CUMPI based on the Consejo's understanding that it lacks jurisdiction over CUMPI's course offering, which the Consejo considers exempt from relevant license requirements; (2) cancel a license previously issued to CUMPI in 2003, renewed in 2007 and in 2011, because CUMPI does not need it to operate; and (3) decree that CUMPI cannot use the term Colegio Universitario ("University College") as part of its institutional name or advertising, for it is not an institution of higher learning offering associate or bachelor degrees to its students and course registrants (Docket No. 1).

Plaintiffs unsuccessfully challenged the Consejo's decision before the Puerto Rico Court of Appeals ("CA") and Supreme Court. While the case was pending in the Puerto Rico Court of Appeals, they initiated the present action for declaratory and injunctive relief, damages, pre-judgment interest, costs and attorney's fees against the Consejo and the individual defendants in their personal and official capacities, alleging violations of due process and equal protection of the laws under the Fifth and/or Fourteenth Amendments (Docket No. 1). Defendants moved to dismiss (Docket Nos. 18, 52) and in due course, for summary judgment (Docket Nos. 124 and 125).

The court referred the motions for summary judgment to U.S. Magistrate Judge Camille L. Vélez-Rivé for an R&R (Docket No. 130), which she issued (Docket No. 139), recommending in part that the action be dismissed on the merits and on res judicata. Id. Before the court are the Magistrate Judge's R&R (Docket No. 139); plaintiffs' objections to the R&R (Docket No. 146); defendants' response to plaintiffs' objections (Docket Nos. 151 and 154); plaintiffs' replies to defendants' response (Docket Nos. 157 and 158); and "Co-Defendant Ricardo Aponte-Parsi's Opposition to Plaintiffs' 'Sur-Reply'" (Docket No. 158) to Report and Recommendation of Dismissal" (Docket No. 159). The R&R is adopted along the terms discussed below.


A district court may refer dispositive motions to a magistrate judge for a report and recommendation. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B)(setting forth authority to designate a magistrate judge to submit proposed findings of fact and recommendations for any motion excepted in subparagraph (A), including a motion for summary judgment); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(regulating magistrate judge's recommended disposition of pretrial matters dispositive of a claim or defense); Loc.Civ.R. 72(referrals from district judge to magistrate judge for proposed findings of fact and recommendations regarding, among other motions, motions for summary judgment). Any party adversely affected by the report and recommendation may file written objections within fourteen days of being served with the magistrate judge's report. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(objections to magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations); Loc. Civ. Rule 72(d)(same).

A party that files a timely objection is entitled to a de novo determination of "those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which specific objection is made." Ramos-Echevarría v. Pichis, Inc., 698 F.Supp.2d 262, 264 (D.P.R. 2010). The objections must "specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings and recommendations to which objection is made and the basis for such objection." Vélez-Padro v. Thermo King de Puerto Rico, Inc., 465 F.3d 31, 32 (1st Cir. 2006). The court may "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate-judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(a)(b)(1).

A. Background

CUMPI is an educational corporation organized under the laws of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, with principal place of business in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico (Docket No. 139, p. 1). It offered courses in alternate dispute resolution, negotiation and professional mediation, dispensing certificates and diplomas to participants. Id. In 2003, the Puerto Rico Council on General Education issued License V-50-23, authorizing CUMPI to operate a private school at the vocational, technical and postsecondary non-university level in Puerto Rico. Id. at p. 2. The license was valid for up to four years (Docket No. 46-1, p. 5; Docket No. 139, p. 2). It was renewed at CUMPI's request in 2007 and 2011. Id. With the latest renewal, the license was valid until November 19, 2015 (Docket No. 126-1, p. 8, ¶ 14).1

In 2010, the Puerto Rico Legislature enacted Reorganization Plan No. 1, P.R. Laws Ann. tit 3 (Ap. XII), eliminating the Puerto Rico Council on General Education and the Puerto Rico Council on Higher Education and, among other things, fusing both entities' powers, duties and responsibilities into the Consejo, which became the governmental agency in charge of implementing and administrating public policy concerning educational standards in Puerto Rico, and of licensing public and private institutions that provide basic and higher education in the Commonwealth (Reorganization Plan No. 1, Article 4 [Docket No. 18-8], p. 8; Docket No. 126-1, p. 3 , ¶ 7; Docket No. 139, pp. 1, 6). It has authority to deny, modify, alter, amend, cancel or suspend licenses or accreditations previously granted by its statutory predecessors to educational institutions (Reorganization Plan No. 1, Article 9(j) [Docket No. 18-8], p. 11; Docket No. 33-2, p. 2). In 2012, it replaced Regulation 6245 with Regulation 8310 (Docket No. 46-1, p. 5), and on February 24, 2015, adopted Regulation 8562. Id. at p. 3.

On October 28, 2015, CUMPI applied to the Consejo for a four-year extension or renewal of License V-50-23 (Docket No. 126-1, pp. 8-9, ¶ 15). On December 21, 2015, the Consejo's Accreditation and Licensing Area notified CUMPI that: (1) in light of Regulation 8562, CUMPI's academic offering was exempt from the licensing requirement set in the regulation, and therefore, does not fall within the Consejo's jurisdiction (although that does not prevent CUMPI fromcontinuing to offer its courses); and (2) considering CUMPI's academic offering, it cannot use the term "Colegio Universitario." Id. at pp. 10-11, ¶ 18.

On January 11, 2016, CUMPI filed a notice of disagreement, requesting that Consejo renew the license and recognize the use of the term "Colegio Universitario" as part of CUMPI's institutional name and advertisement (Docket No. 126-1, p. 11, ¶ 19). Among other things, it argued that the Consejo's findings were based on clearly erroneous interpretations of applicable laws and regulations, and in violation of plaintiffs' due process and equal protection rights under the Constitutions of Puerto Rico and the United States (Docket No. 1, ¶ 3.12).

On April 28, 2016, the Consejo's Executive Director sent to CUMPI's President a letter acknowledging receipt of the written objection and stating that the case was referred to the Board of Governance to decide if CUMPI required a license from the Consejo to continue operations (Docket No. 46-1, p. 4). On June 30, 2016, the Consejo: (1) determined that CUMPI does not need a license from Consejo to operate as a postsecondary institution because its academic offering does not fall within the Consejo's jurisdiction; (2) cancelled License V-50-23 by way of Certification 2016-347; and (3) expressed the cancelation does not imply that CUMPI cannot go on offering continuing education and professional development training (Docket No. 126-1, p. 12, ¶ 22). On August 5, 2016, CUMPI presented a second notice of objections and request for reconsideration. Id. at p. 12, ¶ 22. On August 17, 2016, Consejo designated an Examining Officer, initiating the administrative adjudicative process. Id.

On November 4, 2016, Consejo notified an amendment to Certification 2016-347 (Docket No. 46-1, p. 4; Docket No. 139, p. 14). It reiterated that CUMPI's academic offerings lie beyond Consejo's jurisdiction, this, pursuant to Reorganization Plan No. 1 and Regulation 8562 (Docket No. 46-1, pp. 4-5; Docket No. 126-1, pp. 12-13, ¶¶ 23, 24; Docket No. 136-1, p. 4). It expressed that renewal of License V-50-23 in 2011 was done analyzing Regulation 6245 but did not take into consideration changes brought by Reorganization Plan No. 1, which pulled out from Consejo's jurisdiction CUMPI's academic offering. Id. That led Consejo to annul Regulation 6245 and approve Regulation 8310 in 2012, which in turn was amended by Regulation 8562, the regulation in effect at the time that CUMPI presented the license renewal request in October 2015 (Docket No. 46-1, p. 5; Docket No. 126-1, p. 13, ¶ 24). On November 16, 2016, CUMPI presented a third notice of objections with similar arguments to the ones it had previously proffered, added that the amendment to Certification 2016-347 violated due process, and asked for an administrative hearing (Docket No. 126-1, p. 15, ¶ 25; Docket No. 136-1, p. 4).2

On January 24, 2017, the parties participated in an evidentiary hearing before an Examining Officer (Docket No. 46-1, p. 5; Docket No. 126-1, p. 15, ¶ 26; Docket No. 136-1, p. 5). They...

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