Standage v. Braithwaite, Civil Action No. ELH-20-2830

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
Writing for the CourtEllen L. Hollander, United States District Judge
Citation526 F.Supp.3d 56
Parties Chase STANDAGE, Plaintiff, v. Kenneth BRAITHWAITE et al., Defendants.
Docket NumberCivil Action No. ELH-20-2830
Decision Date22 December 2020

526 F.Supp.3d 56

Chase STANDAGE, Plaintiff,
Kenneth BRAITHWAITE et al., Defendants.

Civil Action No. ELH-20-2830

United States District Court, D. Maryland.

Signed December 22, 2020
Filed March 18, 2021

526 F.Supp.3d 61

Jeffrey Edward McFadden, Law Offices of Jeffrey E. McFadden, Grasonville, DC, Michael P. Darrow, Crighton Andrew Chase, Hillman Brown and Darrow PA, Annapolis, MD, for Plaintiff.

Kelly M. Marzullo, United States Attorney's Office, Baltimore, MD, for Defendants.


Ellen L. Hollander, United States District Judge

This case arises from efforts of the United States Naval Academy ("USNA," "Naval Academy" or "Academy") to discharge and dis-enroll plaintiff Chase Standage, a

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twenty-one year old midshipman first class in his senior year at the Academy, because of "tweets" that he published in June 2020 via Twitter, "a social networking platform that allows a person to post and read short messages called ‘tweets.’ " United States v. Loughry , 983 F.3d 698, 702 (4th Cir. 2020), rehearing en banc granted , 837 Fed.Appx. 251 (4th Cir. 2021).1 Plaintiff's tweets concerned topics such as race, racial injustice, police brutality, the social ferment related to those issues, and the government's response to protests that gripped the nation after the tragic deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in March and May of 2020, respectively.

At the time of the tweets, Standage was at his home near Los Angeles, California. In general, the Academy does not prohibit the use of social media by midshipmen, so long as the user does not indicate an association with the Navy. With respect to his tweets, plaintiff did not identify himself as a member of the USNA.

The tweets led to an on-campus disciplinary proceeding. Officials at the USNA regarded some of the tweets as racially insensitive, offensive, or inappropriate. In particular, Academy officials found that plaintiff's tweets constituted "conduct unbecoming an officer," in violation of Article 133 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice ("UCMJ"), 10 U.S.C. § 933, and Commandant of Midshipmen Notice 5720, titled "Political Activities of Midshipmen" ("Notice 5720"). Thereafter, Vice Admiral Sean Buck, Superintendent of the Naval Academy, determined that plaintiff's tweets constituted "unsatisfactory conduct" under 10 U.S.C. § 8462, for which he has recommended plaintiff's discharge.2

Section 8462 of 10 U.S.C. establishes the process by which a midshipman may be separated from the Academy. The statute requires the Superintendent to "submit to the Secretary of the Navy ... a full report of the facts ... whenever the Superintendent determines that the conduct of a midshipman is unsatisfactory." Further, § 8462 grants the Secretary of the Navy ("Secretary") the authority to discharge a midshipman, if he believes the Superintendent's determination to be "reasonable and well founded."

As discussed, infra , the Secretary has delegated his authority under § 8462 to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Manpower & Reserve Affairs) ("ASN (M&RA)" or "Assistant Secretary").3 However, to my knowledge, no decision has yet been rendered by the Assistant Secretary.

On September 30, 2020, Standage initiated suit against Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite and Superintendent Buck, defendants. ECF 1. In his Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, plaintiff alleged, inter alia , content and viewpoint discrimination, in violation of his rights under the First Amendment, and deprivation

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of due process, in violation of his rights under the Fifth Amendment.

Standage also moved for a preliminary injunction (ECF 2, "PI Motion"), supported by exhibits. He asserts that his tweets, which were "expressly directed to non-military members of the general public," constitute protected speech. ECF 2-1 at 10.4 Further, Standage seeks to enjoin the Superintendent and the Secretary from separating him from the Naval Academy "and from otherwise interfering with his good standing ... at the Naval Academy solely because of his exercise of protected speech under the First Amendment." Id. at 14. He claims that, absent an injunction, he will suffer irreparable harm from the loss of his First Amendment freedoms, the end to "his bright future ... as a Navy pilot," and reputation damage. Id. at 11.

Upon notice of the filing of the suit and the PI Motion, the Court held an emergency telephone conference with counsel for plaintiff and the government, at which a briefing and hearing schedule was set. ECF 4. Thereafter, on October 1, 2020, with the consent of the government, and pending disposition of the PI Motion, the Court issued an Order precluding defendants "from taking any further steps to separate" Standage from the Academy, including issuance of the Memorandum Report recommending his separation to the Assistant Secretary. ECF 5. The Order also precluded defendants from "interfering with Plaintiff's ability to continue attending his academic classes and military obligations," pending disposition of the PI Motion. Id.

In accordance with the Scheduling Order (ECF 4), defendants filed a combined opposition to the PI Motion and a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). ECF 8. They assert sovereign immunity, ripeness, and failure to exhaust administrative remedies, and argue that plaintiff's claims present a nonjusticiable military controversy. Id. at 4-11. In the alternative, defendants contend that, even if Standage's claims are reviewable, his Motion fails on the merits. Id. at 14-21.

Plaintiff subsequently filed an Amended Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief (ECF 11), with exhibits. ECF 11-1 to ECF 11-5. He also filed a combined reply to defendants’ opposition and opposition to defendants’ motion to dismiss (ECF 12), along with additional exhibits. See ECF 12-1 to ECF 12-4. And, he later filed a supplemental reply. ECF 17.

The Court held a lengthy hearing on October 30, 2020, at which oral argument was presented. ECF 16.5 Thereafter, with the government's consent (ECF 20), and with leave of Court (ECF 21), Standage filed a Second Amended Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief. ECF 22 ("Second Amended Complaint"). He challenges the disciplinary proceedings and again asserts violations of his rights under the First Amendment and the Fifth Amendment, as well as a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. § 500 et seq.

Count 1 of the Second Amended Complaint asserts "Content and Viewpoint Discrimination in Violation of the APA and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." Id. at 26. Count 2 alleges "Promulgation

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of a Standard of Conduct Through Punishment in Violation of the APA and the Ex Post Facto Clause of the U.S. Constitution." Id. at 29. Count 3 claims "Deprivation of Procedural Due Process in Violation of the APA and the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." Id. at 30. Count 4 asserts "Race Stereotyping and Conformity of Viewpoint in Violation of the APA and the President's OMB Directive." Id. at 31. And, Count 5 lodges a claim for "Race Stereotyping and Conformity of Viewpoint in Violation of the APA and the President's Executive Order." Id. at 32.

The parties then engaged in supplemental briefing, pursuant to an Order of November 4, 2020. ECF 19. Defendants submitted a supplemental motion to dismiss (ECF 27), which incorporates defendants’ earlier arguments regarding reviewability and subject matter jurisdiction. Id. at 5. In addition, defendants assert that plaintiff has failed to state a claim and that all five counts warrant dismissal under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Id. at 3. Superintendent Buck's Memorandum Report of November 12, 2020, is appended as an exhibit. ECF 27-1. I shall refer collectively to ECF 27 and to the prior the motion to dismiss (ECF 8) as the "Motion to Dismiss."

In response, plaintiff filed a supplemental opposition (ECF 29), along with exhibits. ECF 29-1 to ECF 29-12. The exhibits included his Show Cause Statement to the ASN (M & RA), dated November 19, 2020, filed in response to the Superintendent's Memorandum Report. See ECF 29-8. Defendants have replied. ECF 30.

The parties’ exhibits also include screenshots of various tweets, including some published by Standage and some that prompted his tweets, as well as others in response. See ECF 11-1 at 2-36; see also id. at 36-52; ECF 11-2; ECF 11-3. In addition, Standage has submitted two declarations. See ECF 12-2 at 31-43; ECF 29-6.

The matter has been fully briefed. An additional hearing is not necessary. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, I shall grant the Motion to Dismiss, without prejudice, because the suit is premature; there is no final agency action and the suit is not ripe. Accordingly, I shall deny the PI Motion, without prejudice.

I. Background

A. Factual Background6


Standage is a twenty-one year old White male. ECF 22, ¶¶ 2, 21. He is in his fourth and final year as a student at the Academy. Id. ¶ 2.

In high school, Standage...

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