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Hubbard v. Howard University

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 21, 2018

ELYSSA HUBBARD, Plaintiff,
v.
HOWARD UNIVERSITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          RANDOLPH D. MOSS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Elyssa Hubbard brings this action for breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing against Defendant Howard University (“Howard”), alleging that the university failed to provide adequate instruction and materials for a course she took; denied “her right to initiate” and to pursue “a grade dispute pursuant to” established grievance procedures; and deprived her of a meaningful opportunity to challenge her academic suspension, Dkt. 1 at 7-8 (Compl. ¶ 35). The matter is now before the Court on Howard's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Dkt. 5. For the following reasons, the Court will DENY that motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         For purposes of Howard's motion to dismiss, the Court must “accept as true” the following factual allegations taken from Hubbard's complaint. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007).

         Plaintiff Elyssa Hubbard was, until recently, enrolled as a student at Howard University in the mechanical engineering program. Dkt. 1 at 1 (Compl. ¶¶ 1-2). Some time prior to the Spring 2017 semester, Hubbard was placed on academic probation, and, as a result, was required to earn a “minimum 2.0 GPA” to avoid suspension and “to continue attending” Howard. Id. at 5-6 (Compl. ¶¶ 24, 30). Hubbard, however, did not achieve that goal, due-at least in part-to a “D” grade she received in Fluid Mechanics II. Dkt. 1 at 3 (Compl. ¶ 11).

         Hubbard contends that her grade in that course was unjustified for two reasons. First, she alleges that the grade that she received on her mid-term examination was unfair. See Id. at 4 (Compl. ¶ 15). In particular, she alleges that when she asked Dr. James Hammonds, who taught the course, about her grade, he “initially stated that [she] did not provide graphs on the exam, but, when she pointed out that she had provided graphs, he then said” that the graphs she provided “were not what he wanted.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 15). Hubbard adds, moreover, that Dr. Hammonds never provided the class with any “examples of what type of graphs he wanted and there was no textbook for the class.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 15). Second, Hubbard alleges that Dr. Hammonds mistakenly concluded that she “did not turn in any assignments.” Id. at 3-4 (Compl. ¶ 13). According to Hubbard, she, in fact, “completed all homework assignments” for the class and “had evidence [that] she submitted them to Professor Hammonds” by email. Id. at 4 (Compl. ¶ 14).

         Consistent with Howard's grievance policy, Hubbard contacted Dr. Hammonds to dispute the grade. Id. at 3 (Compl. ¶ 12). Dissatisfied with Dr. Hammonds's response, she then contacted the Department Chair, Dr. Nadir Yilmaz. Id. at 4 (Compl. ¶ 14). Dr. Yilmaz reviewed Hubbard's exams and homework, but, because he did not receive a response from Dr. Hammonds, Dr. Yilmaz “recommended [that Hubbard simply] file a grievance with the appropriate [university] entity.” Id. at 5 (Compl. ¶¶ 16-19). Hubbard then “submitted an [a]cademic [g]rievance” to the Dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture, Dr. Achille Messac. Id. (Compl. ¶ 21). “Receiving no response, . . . Hubbard followed up with Dr. Messac, ” who told her that “all official communications must be submitted through [Howard University] emails.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 22). Hubbard had initially filed her grievance “using her personal email account, ” and she therefore “resubmitted” the grievance to Dr. Messac using her Howard University email account. Id. (Compl. ¶¶ 22-23). Two days later, however, she “received a notice of academic suspension for failing to meet the 2.0 GPA requirement” while on academic probation. Id. (Compl. ¶ 24).

         After receiving notice of her academic suspension, Hubbard met with Dr. Yilmaz, who told her that because Dr. Hammonds was off for the summer and “was not required to respond to Dr. Yilmaz's emails, ” “Dr. Yilmaz could not move forward with the grade dispute until Dr. Hammonds returned from summer break.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 25). Hubbard then “submitted an appeal for reinstatement citing [her] pending grade dispute, ” which, “if successful, ” would have allowed her to “meet the 2.0 GPA minimum to continue attending [Howard] on probation.” Id. at 6 (Compl. ¶ 26). Dr. Yilmaz, however, denied Hubbard's “appeal for reinstatement” without resolving the pending grade dispute. Id. (Compl. ¶ 27). Subsequently, the university's Associate Provost, Dr. Angela Cole Dixon, met with Hubbard and informed “her that her informal grievance was never initiated in the first place because she had not followed” the proper procedure; in particular, she had not had “a face-to-face meeting with a professor regarding [the] grade dispute.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 29). According to Hubbard, no such requirement exists. Id.

         Finally, “[o]n September 1, 2017, Dr. Yilmaz emailed . . . Hubbard, ” stating that “he was upholding his decision of academic suspension” because “Hubbard had not formally initiated [the] grievance [process]” and, “even if the outcome of the grievance was favorable to her, ” “she would not reach the 2.0 GPA threshold required to bring her into good standing.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 30). Hubbard disagrees, alleging that she properly initiated the grievance process and that “a successful grade dispute would have at least given her the minimum 2.0 GPA for the spring 2017 semester, thus allowing her to continue attending [Howard] on probationary status.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 30) (emphasis in original).

         Hubbard then brought this diversity action for breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, seeking reinstatement, damages, costs, and attorney's fees. Id. at 7-9 (Compl. ¶¶ 35-45).

         II. ANALYSIS

         Hubbard's claims fall into two general categories: First, she alleges that “Dr. Hammonds [failed to] provide[] adequate instruction and materials during the [Fluid Mechanics] II class to ensure that [she] and other students knew what kind of graphs he wanted to see on the mid-term examination.” Id. at 8 (Compl. ¶ 35). Second, she alleges that Howard failed to provide her with the contractually required process for resolving her grade dispute and challenging her suspension. Id. at 7-8 (Compl. ¶ 35). The Court will consider these claims in turn.

         A. Inadequate Instruction

         With respect to the first category, Hubbard alleges that her Fluid Mechanics II instructor failed to “provid[e] adequate instruction and materials, ” id. at 8 (Compl. ¶ 35), such as “lectures, ” “handouts, ” or a “textbook for the class, ” id. at 4 (Compl. ¶ 15), “to ensure that . . . Hubbard and other students knew what kind of graphs he wanted to see on the mid-term examination, ” id. at 8 (Compl. ¶ 35). Howard moves to dismiss this claim on the ground that academic decisions “usually call for judicial deference, ” and Hubbard “does not plead any improper motivation or ...


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