Rhea v. Dist. Bd. of Trs. of Santa Fe Coll.

Citation109 So.3d 851
Decision Date13 March 2013
Docket NumberNo. 1D11–3049.,1D11–3049.
PartiesDarnell RHEA, Appellant, v. The DISTRICT BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF SANTA FE COLLEGE, Florida, Appellee.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Florida (US)


Darnell Rhea, pro se, Appellant.

Lisa J. Augspurger and Maria Dawson Torsney, of Bush & Augspurger, P.A., Orlando; Sylvia H. Walbolt, of Carlton Fields, P.A., Tampa; Christine Davis Graves, of Carlton Fields, P.A., Tallahassee, for Appellee.

Andy Bardos and Allen Winsor, of GrayRobinson, P.A., Tallahassee, for Florida Atlantic University, et al., Amici Curiae.



The District Board of Trustees of Santa Fe College, Florida (the College), Appellee, has moved for rehearing, rehearing en banc, and certification of a question of great public importance. We grant the motion for rehearing to affirm the trial court's dismissal of Count One; the motions for rehearing en banc and certification are denied. We withdraw our prior opinion and substitute the following opinion in its place.

Darnell Rhea appeals an order dismissing his second amended complaint, with prejudice, in his lawsuit against the College. Rhea's pleading comprised a petition for writ of mandamus alleging a violation of Florida's public records laws (Count One) and a petition for declaratory judgment alleging a violation of a college rule (Count Two). Concluding, as the trial court did, that Rhea has not stated a cause of action in either count, we affirm the dismissal order.

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 the Chairman of the Academic Foundations Department (the Chair) at the College, a state college created and operated under chapter 1001, Florida Statutes. 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 previously received 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 protection provided for education records in the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA), 20 U.S.C. section 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, unredacted public record to Rhea, the College violated the law.

The e-mail in question complains of Rhea's inappropriate classroom behavior, his humiliating remarks to the students, and his unorthodox teaching methodologies. Rhea denied all of the negative e-mail allegations. He 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 his 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. Rhea argued that pursuant to FERPA, a student's complaint about the teaching methods and classroom behavior of a public, postsecondary school employee who is not a student at the school is not an education record because it 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 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 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 to strike Rhea's claims for attorney's fees and damages. After a hearing on the 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 exercised 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

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 a complaint, the trial court's view is limited to the four corners of the complaint, the factual allegations of which are to be accepted as 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 the plaintiff, 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 claim. Meyers, 754 So.2d at 202. 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 So.2d 839, 841 (Fla. 1st DCA 2005); Landrum v. John Doe Pit Digger, 696 So.2d 926, 928 (Fla. 2d DCA 1997) (stating that the district court's review of the trial court's dismissal order is limited to determining whether the complaint stated a cause of action).

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 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 alleged sufficient facts to state a claim that he has a clear legal right to the unredacted copy of the e-mail and that the College has a clear legal duty to provide it to him.

On the question of whether Count One states a cause of action, we look first to Florida public records law. Where purely legal issues of whether a document is a public record and subject to disclosure are involved, we have de novo review. State v. City of Clearwater, 863 So.2d 149, 151 (Fla.2003); Media Gen. Convergence, Inc. v. Chief Judge of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, 840 So.2d 1008, 1013 (Fla.2003).

A citizen's access to public records is a fundamental constitutional right in Florida. Article I, section 24(a) of the Florida Constitution (the “Sunshine Amendment) grants [e]very person ... the right to inspect or copy any public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body, officer, or employee of the state, or persons acting on their behalf.” This “self-executing” right to open records is enforced through the Public Records Law, chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes. It is the duty of each agency 1 to provide access to such records. § 119.01(1), Fla. Stat. (2009).


To continue reading

Request your trial
34 cases
  • Villa Bellini Ristorante & Lounge, Inc. v. Mancini
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • November 15, 2019
    ...sought." (first citing Hatten v. State, 561 So. 2d 562, 563 (Fla. 1990) ; and then citing Rhea v. Dist. Bd. of Trs. of Santa Fe College, 109 So. 3d 851, 855 (Fla. 1st DCA 2013) )); Kuehl v. Bradshaw, 954 So. 2d 653, 655 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007) ("Mandamus is proper to compel a public official to......
  • Bryner v. Canyons Sch. Dist., 20130566–CA.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Utah
    • May 29, 2015
    ...is directly related to a student if it has a close connection to that student.” Rhea v. District Bd. of Trustees of Santa Fe Coll., 109 So.3d 851, 857 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.2013). Records therefore directly relate to a student if “the matters addressed in the ... records pertain to actions commi......
  • Fla. Dep't of Transp. v. Miami-Dade Cnty. Expressway Auth.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • June 25, 2020
    ...(quoting White v. Manassa , 252 Ala. 396, 41 So.2d 395, 397 (1949) ). see also Rhea v. District Bd. of Trustees of Santa Fe College, 109 So. 3d 851, 859 (Fla. 1st DCA 2013). And of course, a declaratory judgment action must name a proper party as defendant. See Marcus v. State Senate for th......
  • Univ. of Ky. v. Kernel Press, Inc.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (Kentucky)
    • March 25, 2021
    ...are "educational records" pursuant to FERPA. The trial court was persuaded by the holding in Rhea v. District Board of Trustees, 109 So. 3d 851, 858 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2013), which adopted a broad construction of "directly related." 20 U.S.C. § 1232g(a)(4)(A)(i). The Florida District Cour......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT