Where a former professor at James Madison University, or JMU, who resigned after he was accused of sexual harassment by a female student, sued JMU and university officials, but his complaint failed to plead plausible Title IX, federal due process or First Amendment retaliation claims, and the court declined to exercise jurisdiction over the state-law claims, the suit was dismissed.
Dr. Eric Pappas, formerly a professor at James Madison University, or JMU, alleges he was falsely and maliciously accused of sexual harassment by a female student and that JMU constructively terminated him after a university hearing panel found him “responsible” for the alleged harassment.
He has sued JMU and three of its employees, alleging federal and state claims. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss.
Defendants attached several documents to their motion to dismiss that were not attached to the complaint. Dr. Pappas maintains the court cannot consider Dean Bauerle and Provost Coltman’s decisions, Doe’s complaint in the case and Roe’s statement. The court concludes that all of the exhibits are integral to the complaint and can be considered except for Roe’s statement.
Statute of limitations
Dean Bauerle’s written decision was dated Nov. 11, 2019. Absent tolling, the two-year statute of limitations would thus have expired on Nov. 11, 2021. Dr. Pappas did not file this action until Feb. 23, 2022. Therefore, unless the limitations period was tolled for approximately 104 days, Dr. Pappas’ § 1983 and Title IX claims are time barred.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued several “judicial emergency orders.” Thus, the applicable limitations period was tolled for 126 days, and Dr. Pappas’ federal claims were therefore timely filed.
In support of his Title IX claim, Dr. Pappas’ complaint fails to plausibly allege that, at the time of his case, there was external pressure on JMU to effect institutional bias against men in disciplinary proceedings. And Dr. Pappas’ allegations that two of the hearing panel members were biased against him because of his sex either are conclusory or otherwise fail to raise a plausible inference of sex bias.
Because the procedural due process claim is brought against the non-JMU defendants in their individual capacities, defendants argue they are entitled to qualified immunity. The court will assume, for the purpose of its analysis, that Dr. Pappas has stated a property interest. As for whether JMU deprived Dr. Pappas of that property interest, “the answer would be evident” had he been officially discharged from his employment. But JMU never fired Dr. Pappas — he resigned.
Dr. Pappas claims that teaching his classes, grading student work and conducting research without the assistance of other JMU students is, as a condition of employment, so objectively onerous that JMU effectively left him with no choice but to resign. But the Fourth Circuit has made clear that “[d]ifficult or unpleasant working conditions” or dissatisfaction with work assignments, “without more, are not so intolerable as to compel a reasonable person to resign.” Similarly the complaint does not plausibly allege that Dr. Pappas was deprived of any liberty interest in his reputation and status as a professor.
Dr. Pappas brings a Fourteenth Amendment claim against Sirocky-Meck in her official capacity as JMU’s Title IX coordinator. Sirocky-Meck argues that this claim is barred by sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. Dr. Pappas first responds that Sirocky-Meck waived Eleventh Amendment immunity by removing this case to federal court. The court disagrees. However the court finds that the Ex parte Young exception permits Dr. Pappas to bring this claim against Sirocky-Meck, except to the extent it seeks a change in his “professional record.”
For the reasons provided earlier on Count Two, however, Dr. Pappas failed to plausibly allege that he was deprived of either a recognized property or liberty interest. As such, Count Three must likewise be dismissed for failure to state a claim.
Dr. Pappas alleges the non-JMU defendants investigated, charged and disciplined him for allegedly exercising his rights under the First Amendment. According to Doe’s Title IX complaint, he largely spoke about his personal dating life with younger girlfriends and the benefits of dating older men. He allegedly shared that several of his former romantic partners were people he initially met as students in his class and that he has never dated anyone over the age of 30.
These alleged comments fall far outside the realm of public life, and JMU was permitted to impose discipline upon a professor for making such comments to a student. And even if those comments could somehow be construed as matters of public concern, a university’s interest in disciplining an employee accused of sexually harassing a student far outweighs any interest of the employee in making sexually suggestive comments to students.
Because the court is dismissing the only federal claims in the case, the court has discretion to decline supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claims and to dismiss them without prejudice.
Defendants’ motion to dismiss granted.
Pappas v. James Madison University, Case No. 5:22-cv-00028, March 31, 2023. WDVA at Harrisonburg (Dillon). VLW 023-3-174. 42 pp.