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Richter v. The Catholic University of America

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 5, 2019

BRENDAN RICHTER, Plaintiff,
v.
THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RICHARD J. LEON JUDGE

         Brendan Richter ("Richter" or "plaintiff) brought this action against The Catholic University of America ("CUA" or "defendant") for breaches of contract and the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Plaintiff claims that CUA is contractually liable for its allegedly improper handling of his academic dismissal from CUA's Columbus School of Law ("CUA Law") during and after his first year as a law student. CUA moved to dismiss the action for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Upon consideration of the pleadings and the relevant law, and for the reasons stated below, defendant's motion to dismiss is GRANTED, and this case is DISMISSED.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was enrolled as a law student at CUA Law for the 2016-2017 academic year. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 7-8 [Dkt. #4]. He finished his fall semester with a 2.021 grade point average ("GPA"), which, under CUA Law's Academic Rules, required him to participate in the Academic Excellence Program ("AEP"). Id. at ¶¶ 9-11; CUA Law Academic Rules, Sec. XXVIII [Dkt. # 8-3] (requiring first-year students in bottom 30 percent of class or who received a C- or lower to participate in the AEP by developing and implementing an approved "written individual academic plan").[1] Richter's first-semester GPA also put him at risk of running afoul of CUA Law's "general policy" that "[s]tudents who attain a cumulative grade point average at the end of their first year or thereafter of less than 2.5 will be excluded from CUA Law." CUA Law Academic Rules, Sec. VI.A, VI.B.l. The Academic Rules outline a procedure for excluded students to petition for readmission "upon a showing of special circumstances." Id. at Sec. VI.B.L.

         On February 3, 2017, plaintiff signed an AEP Plan reflecting CUA Law's "concerns about [his] academic progress" and restating CUA Law's policy that students with a cumulative first-year GPA below 2.50 will be academically dismissed. AEP Plan [Dkt. # 8-2]. By signing the AEP Plan, Richter committed to, inter alia, "attend one of [his] professor's office hours and ask questions about [his] work once a week." Id.; Am. Compl. ¶ 13. According to the Amended Complaint, Richter did not meet regularly with his Constitutional Law professor because the professor's "office hours were frequently booked by other students and [the professor] would not make other arrangements to meet with" Richter "individually" because he viewed such meetings as "preferential treatment." Am. Compl. ¶¶ 45-47. Plaintiff thus could only attend "a group question and answer session" with the professor, "rather than [an] individual meeting." Id. ¶ 47. Richter alleges that because he (like his classmates) could not benefit from private sessions with the professor, he had "to devote a substantial amount of additional time to Constitutional Law," which "divert[ed] his attention from and undermin[ed] his efforts in other classes," leading to lower grades. Id. ¶49.

         Plaintiff finished the spring semester with a 1.709 GPA, bringing his cumulative GPA down to 1.865. Id. ¶ 26. Because his GPA was below 2.50, CUA Law informed plaintiff in a June 9, 2017 letter that he would not be permitted to continue as a CUA Law student. Id. ¶ 27. About six weeks later, on July 24, Richter, through counsel, requested a letter from CUA Law stating that, despite his academic disqualification, he possessed the capacity to complete his legal education and be admitted to the bar, in accordance with American Bar Association ("ABA") Standard 501(c). Id. ¶¶ 29-32. CUA Law did not respond to Richter's request in writing; rather, CUA Law's counsel indicated to Richter's counsel that CUA Law did not intend to provide such a letter. Id. ¶¶ 34-35. Plaintiff alleges that he consequently "was unable to seek admission to an ABA-accredited law school for either the Fall 2017 or Spring 2018 semesters." Id. ¶ 36.

         On March 15, 2018, Richter brought this action against CUA for breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing under D.C. law. See Compl. [Dkt. # 1]. He amended his complaint on June 5, 2018 to add new allegations regarding CUA Law's grading curve and additional allegations about his Constitutional Law professor's office hours. See Am. Compl. On July 3, 2018, CUA moved to dismiss Richter's claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), see Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss [Dkt. ## 8, 8-1], and Richter filed his response on July 30, 2018, see Pl.'s Opp'n [Dkt. # 11]. CUA filed a reply in support of its motion on August 15, 2018. See Def.'s Reply [Dkt. #14].

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss "tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint." Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). A claim is facially plausible when the complaint allegations allow the Court to "draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. Although the standard does not amount to a "probability requirement," it does require more than a "sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements," are not sufficient to state a claim. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         In resolving a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court "assumes the truth of all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint and construes reasonable inferences from those allegations in the plaintiffs favor[.]" Sissel v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 760 F.3d 1, 4 (D.C. Cir. 2014). In addition to the complaint's factual allegations, the Court may consider "documents attached to or incorporated in the complaint, matters of which courts may take judicial notice, and documents appended to a motion to dismiss whose authenticity is not disputed, if they are referred to in the complaint and integral to a claim." Harris v. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, 825 F.Supp.2d 82, 85 (D.D.C. 2011).

         ANALYSIS

         In his Amended Complaint, plaintiff claims that he had an express and implied contract with CUA and that, by mishandling his academic dismissal, CUA breached that contract and the covenant of good faith and fair dealing implicit in it. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 52-80. I will address these contentions in turn.

         I. Breach of Contract

         Under D.C. law, "[t]o prevail on a claim of breach of contract, a party must establish (1) a valid contract between the parties; (2) an obligation or duty arising out of the contract; (3) a breach of that duty; and (4) damages caused by breach." Brown v. Sessoms,774 F.3d 1016, 1024 (D.C. Cir. ...


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