Stubbs v. Gerken

Decision Date29 September 2022
Docket Number3:21CV01525(SALM)
PartiesSIERRA STUBBS and GAVIN JACKSON v. HEATHER GERKEN, ELLEN COSGROVE, YASEEN ELDIK, and YALE UNIVERSITY
CourtUnited States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Connecticut)

SIERRA STUBBS and GAVIN JACKSON
v.

HEATHER GERKEN, ELLEN COSGROVE, YASEEN ELDIK, and YALE UNIVERSITY

No. 3:21CV01525(SALM)

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 29, 2022


RULING ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS THE SECOND AMENDED COMPLAINT [Doc. #36]

HON. SARAH A. L. MERRIAM UNITED STATES CIRCUIT JUDGE

Plaintiffs Sierra Stubbs and Gavin Jackson (collectively “plaintiffs”), each of whom was a student at Yale Law School, bring this action alleging, in sum, that two deans of the Yale Law School, along with the Law School's Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, “worked together in an attempt to blackball” plaintiffs from the prestigious job opportunities that are often available to Yale Law School students and graduates. Doc. #30 at 2, ¶1. Plaintiffs proceed pursuant to a Second Amended Complaint asserting claims against all defendants for: (1) breach of contract; (2) promissory estoppel; (3) intentional interference with prospective business relationship; (4) defamation; (5) unreasonable publicity; (6) false light; and (7) intentional infliction of emotional distress. See generally id. at 16-21.

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Defendants Heather Gerken (“Gerken”), Ellen Cosgrove (“Cosgrove”), Yaseen Eldik (“Eldik”), and Yale University (collectively “defendants”) have filed a Motion to Dismiss the Second Amended Complaint. See Doc. #36. Plaintiffs have filed a memorandum in opposition to defendants' motion. See Doc. #40. As defendants assert in their reply brief, plaintiffs' memorandum in opposition attempts, unsuccessfully, to “re-frame the story[]” that is otherwise pled in the Second Amended Complaint. Doc. #44 at 2.[1]

For the reasons stated below, defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Second Amended Complaint [Doc. #36] is GRANTED, in large part, and DENIED, in limited part.

I. LEGAL STANDARD

“To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citation and quotation marks omitted); accord Kaplan v. Lebanese Canadian Bank, SAL, 999 F.3d 842, 854 (2d Cir. 2021). In reviewing such a motion, the Court “must

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accept as true all nonconclusory factual allegations in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in the Plaintiffs' favor.” Kaplan, 999 F.3d at 854 (citations omitted).

“[W]hile this plausibility pleading standard is forgiving, it is not toothless. It does not require [the Court] to credit legal conclusions couched as factual allegations or naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement.” Mandala v. NTT Data, Inc., 975 F.3d 202, 207 (2d Cir. 2020) (citation and quotation marks omitted). “A pleading that offers labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citations and quotation marks omitted).

“In considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a district court may consider the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached to the complaint as exhibits, and documents incorporated by reference in the complaint.” DiFolco v. MSNBC Cable L.L.C., 622 F.3d 104, 111 (2d Cir. 2010). Attached to the Second Amended Complaint is a six page document bearing the title: “Timeline of Events[.]” Doc. #30-1 at 2. In addition to the “Timeline,” there are fourteen pages of text messages captured by screenshot. See Id. at 8-21. Plaintiffs have elected to call this document the “Dossier[.]” Doc. #30 at 3, ¶3. For purposes of clarity, the

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Court hereinafter refers to the document attached to the Second Amended Complaint as the “Dossier.”[2]

Because the Dossier is attached the Second Amended Complaint, the Court has considered the contents thereof when deciding the Motion to Dismiss.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

For purposes of deciding the Motion to Dismiss, the Court presumes the following factual allegations set forth in the Second Amended Complaint [Doc. #30] to be true.

A. Yale Law School and Plaintiffs' Enrollment

Plaintiffs enrolled at Yale Law School (“YLS”) in the Fall of 2019. See Doc. #30 at 8, ¶32. As of the filing of the Second Amended Complaint, plaintiff Sierra Stubbs (“Stubbs”) had completed her second year at YLS and was then “on a voluntary leave of absence from the school.” Id. at 5, ¶15. Plaintiff Gavin Jackson (“Jackson”) had enrolled in his third year at YLS. See id. at 5, ¶16.

YLS “employs a limited grading scale and does not compute grade point averages].]" Id. at 5, ¶21. The grading system at

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YLS places its students “in high competition over non-grade signifiers of merit.” Id. at 6, ¶24. One of these signifiers is the “Coker Fellowship, a highly coveted teaching assistant position.” Id. at 6, ¶25. These fellowships offer valuable learning opportunities and “substantial” networking benefits. Id. at 7, ¶31; see also id. at 6-7, ¶¶27-30.

B. Events Leading to the “Dossier”

Stubbs and Jackson each first met Professor Amy Chua (“Chua”) when each was enrolled in Chua's International Business Transactions course. See Doc. #30 at 8, ¶33. Chua “has served as an important mentor for her students, many of whom successfully obtain prestigious [judicial] clerkships.” Id. at 8, ¶34.

In September 2018, well before Stubbs and Jackson met Chua, Gerken, the current Dean of YLS, began “publicly criticizing Chua[.]” Id. at 8, ¶35; see also id. at 5, ¶18. In “an email to all members of the [YLS] community[,]” Gerken expressed “‘enormous concern'” about “‘allegations of faculty misconduct' supposedly against Chua[.]” Id. at 8, ¶36.[3] It was “reported” that in 2019 “Chua had entered a ‘no-socializing' agreement with

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the University whereby she agreed not to socialize with students off-campus.” Id. at 9, ¶38.

In February 2021, plaintiffs “separately attended Zoom ‘office hours' with Chua to discuss their coursework.” Doc. #30 at 9, ¶39. These conversations “would also cover career discussions and any concerns that [plaintiffs] voiced about the University.” Id. at 9, ¶40. Such concerns included those of Jackson, who “struggled with what he felt was a lack of institutional support for students of color, which ended with his frustrated resignation from the board of the Yale Law Journal.” Id. at 9, ¶41. Jackson's resignation “received media coverage[,]” which “caused” him “to face significant hostility at the school.” Id. Chua was “in a unique position to offer [Jackson] guidance on these issues[,]” having been subject to “race-based, online instigated hostility, as well as being one of the few faculty members of color at” YLS. Id. at 9, ¶42. Because of the “sensitive nature of the subject,” plaintiffs “wished to discuss their issues with Chua in person.” Id. at 9, ¶43. “To avoid meeting in public[,]” plaintiffs “and Chua decided to meet at Chua's home[.]” Id. at 9, ¶44. Plaintiffs met with Chua at her home on two occasions in February 2021 and March 2021. See id. at 10, ¶45. It was at this time, beginning in February 2021, that plaintiffs “became embroiled in Gerken

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and Cosgrove's apparent vendetta against Chua.” Id. at 9, ¶39; see also id. at 3, ¶8 (referencing “the University's crusade against Chua[]”).[4]

C. The “Dossier” and the Aftermath

Plaintiffs' meetings with Chua “became [the] subject of pernicious law school gossip[,]” including a “20-page document, the Dossier (Ex. A), that purported to document the ‘secret dinner parties' that Chua was supposedly hosting with [plaintiffs], and unidentified federal judges.” Doc. #30 at 10, ¶46; see also Doc. #30-1. The Second Amended Complaint alleges that the Dossier “claims that [plaintiffs] had ‘repeatedly lied' about their experience as students of color at the Law School, and further ‘repeatedly lied' about the existence of the secret dinner parties, before supposedly admitting their existence to the Dossier's author].]” Doc. #30 at 10, ¶49; see also Doc. #30-1. The Dossier also “denounced” plaintiffs “for ‘deliberately enabling' a ‘secret atmosphere of favoritism, misogyny, and sexual harassment.'” Id. at 11, ¶51. “The Dossier eventually gained such wide circulation that it became the subject of

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investigative reporting from” several national news outlets. Id. at 10, ¶47.

Plaintiffs “became aware of the Dossier in late April 2021, when it had begun to circulate among the [YLS] student body.” Doc. #30 at 11, ¶52. On April 23, 2021, Cosgrove and Eldik, the Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at YLS, contacted plaintiffs about the Dossier. See id. at 11, ¶53. “Cosgrove and Eldik pressured [plaintiffs] to make a formal statement confirming the allegations against, and lodge their own formal complaint, against Chua.” Id. at 11, ¶54 (sic). Despite plaintiffs “repeatedly denying the Dossier's assertions, Cosgrove and Eldik pressured [plaintiffs] to make ... false statements against Chua.” Id. at 11, ¶55.

In communications with Stubbs, Cosgrove and Eldik made reference to “the ‘effort against Professor Chua' and insisted that if [Stubbs] would ‘just give them' a statement, they would have ‘enough' against Chua.” Id. at 12, ¶56. Plaintiffs “consistently refused to make false statements, and instead repeatedly asked Cosgrove and Eldik for assistance against the troubling invasion of privacy and resulting harassment that they suffered.” Id. at 12, ¶57. “Cosgrove and Eldik ignored these requests ... and discouraged [plaintiffs] from filing a formal

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complaint concerning the harm” caused by the Dossier. Id. at 12, ¶58.

During a call among Cosgrove, Eldik, and Stubbs, Eldik told Stubbs “that the Dossier would likely end up in every judges' [sic] chambers, following her even after she graduates, effectively sabotaging any hopes of her securing a clerkship whether she applied now or in the future.” Doc. #30 at 12, ¶59 (quotation marks omitted). In a similar call among Cosgrove, Eldik, and...

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