Nichols v. University of Southern Mississippi

Decision Date26 October 2009
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 2:08cv128-KS-MTP.
Citation669 F.Supp.2d 684
PartiesDr. Clint NICHOLS, Plaintiff v. The UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Mississippi

Kim Turner Chaze, Kim T. Chaze, Attorney, Durham, NH, for Plaintiff.

Alan M. Purdie, Purdie & Metz, PLLC, Ridgeland, MS, Lee P. Gore, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS, for Defendants.


KEITH STARRETT, District Judge.

This matter is before the court on a Motion to Dismiss, or, in the alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. # 44], filed on behalf of Defendants. The court, having reviewed the motion, the responses, the pleadings and exhibits on file and being otherwise fully advised in the premises, finds that the summary judgment motion should be granted. The court specifically finds as follows:


Dr. Clint Nichols was a non-tenured faculty member of the School of Music at the University of Southern Mississippi. Since 1999, he has been a part-time employee and designated as either an adjunct, visiting, or interim professor. His last employment contract was for the Fall 2007 Semester and ran from August 20, 2007 through December 14, 2007. Dr. Nichols had various responsibilities including voice instruction.

In November 2007, following a voice lesson, Dr. Nichols and one of his students, Mr. Lunsford, engaged in a conversation in the classroom about homosexuality and the entertainment industry in New York City. Later that same day Lunsford, offended by some of Dr. Nichols's opinions, returned to confront Dr. Nichols. Mr. Ward, the accompanist, was present for some of the conversation. While the specific content of the conversations is disputed, the general topic was about "working with homosexuals and how the New York musical environment is impacted by homosexuality." Compl. ¶ 9 [Doc. # 1-2]. Dr. Nichols spent time working on Broadway and contends that he was warning Lunsford that "New York was morally challenging, that AIDS was a severe problem there, and that he should be careful how he handled himself there." Pl.'s Br. Resp. Mot. Summ. J. 4 [Doc. # 49]. Dr. Nichols contends that he did not know of Lunsford's homosexuality until Lunsford informed him of his sexual orientation in the second meeting. At some point after learning Lunsford's sexual orientation, Dr. Nichols stated that he would pray for Lunsford.

That evening, Lunsford spoke to his roommate about his conversation with Dr. Nichols and how it made him feel. His roommate suggested that he complain to the School of Music. On his roommate's advice, Lunsford reported the conversation to a faculty member, Dr. Kyle. Dr. Kyle reported the incident to Dr. Dean, her husband and fellow faculty member. Dr. Dean then reported the incident to Dr. Charles Elliott, the Chair of the School of Music. Dr. Elliott reported the incident to the Director of Affirmative Action, Dr. Rebecca Woodrick. Lunsford recited his version of the conversation with Dr. Nichols in an emailed statement to Dr. Woodrick.1

Lunsford reported that Dr. Nichols said several things "that can be seen as inappropriate" and "that hit [him] very hard personally." Defs.' Br. Supp. Mot. Summ. J., Ex. J [Doc. # 45-7]. Lunsford writes:

[H]e said things such as:

• it's a proven fact that homosexuals die 20 years early.

• there is nothing good that comes out of a homosexual relationship.

• homosexual relationships are full of jealousy drugs and aids.

• i'll [sic] don't need the 3% of minorities in this country to tell the rest of us normal people what to believe.

• homosexuality is a discusting [sic] lifestyle.

• i'll [sic] pray for you (after i[sic] told him that i[sic] was a homosexual)

Id. (bullet points added). Lunsford also reported that Dr. Nichols said he would try to be more sensitive and would not treat Lunsford any differently. Id. However, Lunsford felt that it would be "extremely awkward" to remain in Dr. Nichols's studio. Id.

On November 16, 2007, Dr. Elliott and Dr. Gillespie, Associate Dean on the College of Arts and Letters, met with Dr. Nichols concerning the incident. At this meeting, Drs. Elliott and Gillespie told Dr. Nichols of the student complaint and that he had violated the University's non-discrimination policy.2 He was given a copy of USM's policy. Initially, Drs. Elliott and Gillespie told Dr. Nichols that his employment would immediately end, a few weeks short of the end of his contract. However, a short time later, after consulting with Dr. Von Hermann, the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, Dr. Elliott informed Dr. Nichols that he could complete his current term of employment. Lunsford was reassigned to another teacher. Drs. Elliott and Gillespie contend that at all times they were acting under the direction of Dr. Denise Von Hermann. Defs.' Br. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. 3-4 [Doc. # 45]. Although Dr. Saunders, the President of USM, has the absolute authority to terminate adjunct professors, she has delegated that duty to the Deans, in this case, Dean Von Hermann. Therefore the named individual defendants in this case were only authorized to offer advice and recommendations.

After the meeting, Dr. Nichols finished out his employment contract. Dr. Nichols told several of his students that he would not be coming back after the Fall 2007 Semester. Pl.'s Br. Resp. Mot. Summ. J. 15 [Doc. # 49]. During his last weeks, Dr. Nichols says that news of the incident spread through the School of Music. In his deposition, Dr. Nichols testified that "[m]any people came to me and mentioned it." Pl.'s Br. Resp. Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 4 at 138: 20-21 [Doc. # 49-5]. Dr. Nichols later clarified in his signature sheet that "it" meant the accusations and allegations against him. Id., Ex. 19 [Doc. # 48-20]. Dr. Nichols asserts that he did not tell anyone about the allegations. Dr. Nichols does not present direct evidence that the named Defendants spoke of the allegation with anyone that was not officially involved. However, Dr. Nichols claims that Defendants did nothing to "prevent or forestall the spreading" of details of the allegations against him. Id. at 15. Lunsford was never told to keep the matter confidential. Thus, Dr. Nichols concludes that Defendants "either released [the information] to the public or allowed [it] to be released." Id. at 16.

USM did not offer Dr. Nichols a new contract for the Spring 2008 Semester. Dr. Nichols sent several letters to Defendants seeking a "name clearing" hearing. Dr. Nichols claims that he should have been afforded this hearing as a USM employee per the terms of the Handbook and the School of Music policies.3 Dr. Nichols further contends that Dr. Woodrick was biased and prejudiced in her investigation or lack thereof, and this led to an unfair decision on the part of the decision-makers, Drs. Saunders and Von Hermann. Dr. Nichols accuses Dr. Woodrick of "ramrodding this through" without meeting with him, having a "lack of respect," and screaming over the phone that Dr. Nichols was guilty when he called for a statement explaining his termination. Pl.'s Resp. Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 4, Nichols Dep. at 113-115 [Doc. # 48-5].

On April 22, 2008, Dr. Nichols filed the present suit against USM and Drs. Elliott, Saunders, Woodrick, and Gillespie, individually and in their official capacities. Dr. Nichols is suing for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his Procedural and Substantive Due Process Rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, Equal Protection Rights, and First Amendment Rights. Compl. ¶ 4. He also raises a state breach of contract claim and violation of Mississippi's Due Process Clause. Compl. ¶¶ 5, 14. Defendants removed the case to federal court, and filed their Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment. [Doc. # 44].


The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 56(c) authorizes summary judgment where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The existence of a material question of fact is itself a question of law that the district court is bound to consider before granting summary judgment. John v. State of La. (Bd. of T. for State C. & U.), 757 F.2d 698, 712 (5th Cir.1985).

A Judge's function at the summary judgment stage is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. There is no issue for trial unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment is appropriate. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

Although Rule 56 is peculiarly adapted to the disposition of legal questions, it is not limited to that role. Prof'l Managers, Inc. v. Fawer, Brian, Hardy & Zatzkis, 799 F.2d 218, 222 (5th Cir.1986). "The mere existence of a disputed factual issue, therefore, does not foreclose summary judgment. The dispute must be genuine, and the facts must be material." Id. "With regard to `materiality', only those disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under the governing substantive law will preclude summary judgment." Phillips Oil Co. v. OKC Corp., 812 F.2d 265, 272 (5th Cir.1987). Where "the summary judgment evidence establishes that one of the essential elements of the plaintiff's cause of action does not exist as a matter of law, ... all other contested issues of fact are rendered immaterial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323...

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