Rhea v. Dist. Bd. of Trs. of Santa Fe Coll., CASE NO. 1D11-3049

Decision Date19 July 2012
Docket NumberCASE NO. 1D11-3049
CourtCourt of Appeal of Florida (US)

DARNELL RHEA, Appellant,

CASE NO. 1D11-3049


Opinion filed July 19, 2012


An appeal from the Circuit Court for Alachua County.
Victor L. Hulslander, Judge.

Darnell Rhea, pro se, Appellant.

Lisa J. Augspurger and Maria Dawson Torsney, of Bush & Augspurger, P.A., Orlando, for Appellee.


Darnell Rhea appeals an order dismissing his second amended complaint, with prejudice, in his lawsuit against the District Board of Trustees of Santa Fe College, Florida (the College). The pleading comprised a petition for writ of mandamus relating to a violation of Florida's public records laws (Count One) and

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a petition for declaratory judgment relating to a violation of a college rule (Count Two). In dismissing Count One, the trial court premised its ruling on a finding that a student's e-mail to the College complaining about an instructor's performance in the classroom is an education record in its unredacted form, i.e., with the name of the student author revealed, and thus is protected from disclosure by Florida and federal law. We conclude that the applicable statutes and related case law demonstrate the unredacted e-mail is not an education record, because it is not directly related to a student. Instead, it is directly related to an instructor and only tangentially related to a student. Therefore, we reverse that part of the order dismissing Count One and remand for further proceedings. We affirm the trial court's determination that Rhea failed to state a cause of action for declaratory relief in Count Two, as there is no justiciable issue regarding the existence of any right Rhea may have had under the college rule in dispute.

I. Pleadings and Procedural History

The second amended complaint alleged two claims. Count One, titled "Petition for Writ of Mandamus Violation of the Public Records Act," alleged that from August to December 2009, Rhea was an adjunct associate professor under the supervision of Appellee's Chairman of the Academic Foundations Department (the Chair) at Santa Fe College, a state college created and operated under chapter 1001, Florida Statutes. Adjunct instructors are given contracts on a semester-by-

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semester basis, depending on the College's needs. On September 28, 2009, Rhea asked the Chair for a complete copy of a certain e-mail received in the normal course of the Chair's employment with the College. Rhea had received only a copy of the e-mail with the name of the student author redacted. The Chair refused to comply with Rhea's repeated requests to disclose the author's name, on the ground that the student's identity is protected from disclosure under the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA), 20 U.S.C. § 1232g (2009). The student gave no written consent to disclosure of his or her name. Count One alleged the e-mail, including the student's name, is a public record, and by refusing to disclose the complete public record to Rhea, the College violated the law.

The e-mail in question complains of Rhea's classroom behavior, his humiliating remarks to students, and his unorthodox teaching methodologies. He denied all of the negative e-mail allegations. Rhea alleged, however, that he was effectively prevented from defending himself by demonstrating that the unnamed student was not in a position to comment fairly and accurately on Rhea's teaching methods and classroom conduct. Rhea asserted that neither the Florida Statutes nor FERPA protects from disclosure the name of a student who writes an e-mail, like the one in question, containing information that does not directly relate to a student. He argued that pursuant to FERPA, a student's complaint about the teaching methods and classroom behavior of a public, postsecondary school

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employee who is not a student at the school relates only tangentially, not directly, to the student. It is, instead, solely a teacher record and thus is not protected from disclosure under FERPA.

Count One alleged further that as a result of the Chair's unlawful refusal to give Rhea the complete, unredacted e-mail, the College did not rehire Rhea, and he suffered damages. Count One requested a jury trial, damages, and attorney's fees and costs. This count also asserted Rhea's right to a writ of mandamus requiring the College to give him the complete record of all complaints from any student that Rhea's supervisors at the College have received.

Count Two is titled "Petition for Declaratory Judgment Violation of Agency Rules." Rhea alleged that while the College is authorized to make rules that have the force of law, it has a corresponding duty to abide by its own rules. He sought a declaration of his rights under the College's rule 7.36 of the "Student Complaint Procedure: Students and Administration," which sets out procedures for students who wish to register a complaint against any employee of the College. The second count alleged that Rhea had a right under rule 7.36 to discuss any complaint from a student and to seek resolution of the complaint, before Rhea's supervisor heard of or saw the student's concern or complaint. The pleading asserted that the College had violated rule 7.36 and its duty to follow its own rules, as a result of which Rhea was not rehired and suffered personal harm. In addition to the request for

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declaratory relief, Count Two requested a jury trial, damages, and attorney's fees and costs.

The College moved to dismiss both counts of the second amended complaint with prejudice and moved to strike Rhea's claims for attorney's fees and damages. After a hearing on the College's motions to dismiss and to strike, the trial court concluded, on Count One, that state and federal law do not require the College to provide Rhea with an unredacted copy of the e-mail. According to the court, the College is bound by state and federal law proscribing the College's disclosure of an unredacted copy containing the student author's name. On Count Two, the court found no justiciable issue as to the existence of any right Rhea may have under rule 7.36, nor did the court find a bona-fide, actual, and present need for a declaration. Because the second amended complaint represented Rhea's third attempt to file a legally sufficient claim, and it was deemed inadequate, the trial court ruled it would exercise its discretion to dismiss the latest pleading with prejudice. Boca Burger, Inc. v. Forum, 912 So. 2d 561, 567 (Fla. 2005). In light of the dismissal with prejudice, the court ruled the motions to strike were moot. This appeal followed.

II. Analysis

The standard of review for an order dismissing a complaint for failure to state a cause of action is de novo. Hernandez v. Tallahassee Med. Ctr., Inc., 896

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So. 2d 839, 841 (Fla. 1st DCA 2005). A motion to dismiss raises a question of law as to whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to state a cause of action. Meyers v. City of Jacksonville, 754 So. 2d 198, 202 (Fla. 1st DCA 2000). In considering the legal sufficiency of Rhea's second amended complaint, the trial court's view is limited to the four corners of the complaint, in which the factual allegations are to be deemed true. Connolly v. Sebeco, Inc., 89 So. 2d 482, 484 (Fla. 1956). In doing so, the trial court must resolve all reasonable conclusions or inferences in favor of Rhea, as the non-moving party. Weaver v. Leon Cnty. Classroom Teachers Ass'n, 680 So. 2d 478, 481 (Fla. 1st DCA 1996). It is well established that dismissal of a complaint with prejudice is a very severe sanction, to be invoked only when the pleader has failed to state a cause of action and it is conclusively shown the complaint cannot be amended in such a way as to state a cause. Meyers, 754 So. 2d at 202.

A. Count One: "Petition for Writ of Mandamus
Violation of the Public Records Act"

To be entitled to a writ of mandamus, Rhea must establish that "he has a clear legal right to the performance of a clear legal duty by a public officer and that he has no other legal remedies available to him." Hatten v. State, 561 So. 2d 562, 563 (Fla. 1990); see Plymel v. Moore, 770 So. 2d 242, 246 (Fla. 1st DCA 2000). Mandamus has been described as "a remedy to command performance of a

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ministerial act that the person deprived has a right to demand, or a remedy where public officials or agencies may be coerced to perform ministerial duties that they have a clear legal duty to perform." Town of Manalapan v. Rechler, 674 So. 2d 789, 790 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996). For purposes of mandamus relief, a duty or act is ministerial when no room exists for the exercise of discretion and the law directs the required performance. Shea v. Cochran, 680 So. 2d 628, 629 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996). Applied to the instant case, the law of mandamus required the trial court to determine whether Rhea has a clear legal right to the unredacted copy of the e-mail and whether the College has a legal duty to provide it to him.

The order dismissing Count One of the second amended complaint with prejudice was based solely on the trial court's conclusion that the e-mail is, indeed, an education record protected from disclosure by federal and Florida statutes. Where purely legal issues of whether a document is a public...

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