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Felkner v. Rhode Island College

Superior Court of Rhode Island

October 2, 2015

RHODE ISLAND COLLEGE; JOHN NAZARIAN, Individually and in his Official Capacity as President of Rhode Island College; SCOTT KANE, Individually and in his Official Capacity as Dean of Students at Rhode Island College; CAROL BENNETT-SPEIGHT, Individually and in her Official Capacity as Dean of the School of Social Work; JAMES RYCZEK, Individually; ROBERTA PEARLMUTTER, Individually and in her Official Capacity as Professor of Social Work; and S. SCOTT MUELLER, Individually and in his Official Capacity as Assistant Professor of Social Work

For Plaintiff: Diane M. Kildea, Esq. Thomas W. Lyons, III, Esq.

For Defendant: Timothy J. Dodd, Esq. Jeffrey S. Michaelson, Esq.



This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and on Plaintiff's objection thereto. Plaintiff William Felkner (Felkner or Plaintiff) has sued Rhode Island College (RIC); John Nazarian, individually and in his official capacity as President of RIC (President Nazarian); Carol Bennett-Speight, individually and in her official capacity as Dean of the School of Social Work (Dean Bennett-Speight); James Ryczek, individually (Ryczek); Roberta Pearlmutter, individually and in her official capacity as Professor of Social Work (Professor Pearlmutter); S. Scott Mueller, individually and in his official capacity as Assistant Professor of Social Work (Mueller); and Scott Kane, individually and in his official capacity as Dean of Students at RIC.[1] All of the Defendants argue that there exists no genuine issue as to a material fact and that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

In his seven-count First Amended Complaint, Felkner alleges Defendants knowingly and intentionally violated, as well as engaged in a conspiracy to violate, his constitutional rights to free speech, equal protection, and due process through political viewpoint discrimination and suppressive academic conduct. Felkner seeks recovery "[p]ursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988, as well as the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act of 1990 [RICRA] . . ." on all counts other than the conspiracy charge, which he brings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3). (First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 115, 121, 127, 133, 139, 150, and 152.) He seeks monetary damages and equitable relief.[2] Id. at 34. Defendants deny violating Felkner's constitutional rights, but maintain that even if they had done so, their actions are protected from suit pursuant to the doctrine of qualified immunity.

In his objection to the Motion for Summary Judgment, Felkner maintains that the Court should not entertain Defendants' Motion because they previously sought summary judgment on the same grounds, and another justice of this Court denied that motion. He also contends that this justice had an opportunity in November 2014 to rule in favor of Defendants on the qualified immunity doctrine, but declined to do so. He argues that the Motion is barred by the doctrine of law of the case, to wit, that it is the law of this case that Defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on the doctrine of qualified immunity.

In the alternative, Felkner asserts that even if considered on its merits, the Court should deny Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. Felkner notes that he has brought federal claims against Defendants and that those claims cannot be resolved by summary judgment. Felkner further points to voluminous discovery responses in asserting that the case is fact driven and that there exists genuine issues as to material facts. Finally, Felkner contends that should the Court find for Defendants based upon their qualified immunity defense, his equitable claims nevertheless would survive the Motion.

For the reasons set forth herein, the Court finds that the doctrine of the law of the case does not bar the Court from considering Defendants' Motion. The Court further finds that there exist no genuine issues of material fact to demonstrate that Defendants violated Felkner's constitutional rights, state and federal; consequently, Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law on his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and RICRA claims. As Felkner has failed to demonstrate any constitutional violations, the Court also finds that he is not entitled to relief on his equitable claims. In addition, the Court finds that Felkner failed to state a claim with respect to the conspiracy charge.


Facts and Travel

Felkner was accepted into the graduate program in RIC's School of Social Work (SSW)[3]and began classes in October 2004. By May 2006, Felkner had completed all of his graduation requirements except one in his field of concentration, Social Work Organizing Policy (SWOP). He had not submitted his integrative project, a requirement for the second part of the two-part curriculum. Master's candidates must complete their studies in four years. As the four-year time limit approached, Felkner sought an extension to finish his degree requirements. Dean Bennett-Speight granted the request which would have given Felkner until May 11, 2009 to complete his studies. However, Dean Bennett-Speight expressly conditioned the extension on Felkner's compliance with set timelines.

For some unexplained reason, Felkner failed to comply with those conditions and timelines, even the one which merely required him to provide Dean Bennett-Speight with written acceptance of the terms of her offer by January 31, 2008. Felkner then sought a further extension to June 30, 2009. Noting his silence on the initial conditional offer, Dean Bennett-Speight rejected the second request and reminded Felkner of the conditions attached to the previous extension offer, one of which he already had breached by failing to accept the conditions by January 31, 2008. She gave him another opportunity to provide the acceptance if he did so by April 4, 2008. However, she did not extend the other timelines and further reminded him that he must submit his problem statement and methodology by April 15, 2008. She informed him that the school would view noncompliance with those conditions as a rejection of the extension offer to May 11, 2009. When Felkner failed to respond-either by accepting the extension offer or by submitting his problem statement and methodology-Professor Pearlmutter informed him that he was no longer considered enrolled in the graduate school.

Felkner's departure from the program was the culmination of an enrollment that was marked by conflict and disagreement with faculty and administration over a variety of issues, some of which triggered additional controversy.

Felkner protested his professor's selection of a movie to present to the class. (Defs.' Ex. E.) In response to that disagreement, Felkner created a website- which he regularly posted comments in order "to catalog his experiences of liberal bias at the College." (Verified Compl. ¶ 21.) Felkner "also criticized the College's bias and discriminatory actions in other media including, radio talk shows, a TV news show, online magazines, and newspapers." Id. at ¶ 22.

On another occasion, his Policy and Organizing (part one) class professor, Ryczek, assigned a project for students to form groups to debate a social welfare issue and then to write a paper in support of the position advanced by the group. Id. at ¶¶ 34-35. After choosing his topic, Felkner requested permission to switch positions on the issue, and Ryczek rejected his request. Id. at ¶¶ 37-42. Felkner disregarded the professor's ruling and completed the position paper as though the request had been granted. Id. at ¶ 44. When Felkner received a failing grade on the paper, he rejected Ryczek's offer to resubmit the assignment for an improved mark. Id. at ¶¶ 47, 50. Instead, Felkner appealed the grade through the administrative channels at the school, which appeal was repeatedly denied. Id. at ¶¶ 52-57. Nonetheless, Ryczek gave Felkner a "C" as his overall coursework grade. Id. at ¶ 51.

The hearing on the unsuccessful grade appeal led to further controversy. Felkner disputed Ryczek's version of events and informed the school that he would begin recording his conversations with college professors. Id. at ¶ 52.

Ryczek taught as an adjunct professor and had other commitments, including his enrollment in a Ph.D. program at Northeastern University. (Pl.'s Ex. 16.) Before part two of the Policy and Organizing class began, he advised RIC that he would be unable to teach the second session of the program because dealing with Felkner required too much additional time and conflicted with his other obligations. Id. Ryczek acquiesced and taught part two of the course when the school agreed to transfer Felkner into another class within the same program taught by Professor Pearlmutter, who was a full Professor of Social Work. (Verified Compl. ¶¶ 11, 60.)

Felkner's relationship with Professor Pearlmutter was not without its own set of problems. While a student in Ryczek's class, Felkner claimed to have found flaws in a study Professor Pearlmutter published, and he articulated his criticism to her by e-mail. Id. at ¶ 45. Professor Pearlmutter, who had never even met Felkner, was very disturbed by the rudeness and disrespectful nature of his e-mails and took particular offense to his inappropriate suggestion that she "walk down to the psychology department and take a refresher course[.]" (Pl.'s Exs. 12 and 25.) Professor Pearlmutter complained to the Chair of the Master of Social Work (MSW) program, Dr. Lenore Olsen, who responded by notifying Felkner that his comments were not consistent with the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics (NASW Code of Ethics). (Pl.'s Ex. 12.)

Things did not improve after Felkner began attending part two of the Policy and Organizing class. The class dealt with policies affecting low income and other vulnerable populations, and the syllabus required students to complete specific assignments. (Pl.'s Ex. 23.) One of the assignments involved having students testify and/or lobby for the passage of pertinent legislation, regulations, policies, etc. Id. at 7.

Felkner sought to modify the assignment. Rather than working with his fellow students on a project that impacted the target population, he wanted to join with students from other schools to lobby RIC to adopt an Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR). (Verified Compl. ¶ 66.) When Professor Pearlmutter rejected this proposal, he asked to lobby in favor of the Governor's welfare reform plan. Id. at ¶¶ 67, 68. Professor Pearlmutter denied the request, voicing the opinion that the Governor's plan would "tear apart" the achievements of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare program. Id. at ¶ 68.

Another assignment required students to form groups to plan and implement a project approved by the professor. (Pl.'s Ex. 23 at 9.) Felkner encountered difficulty recruiting any fellow students to work on his chosen project. (Verified Compl. ¶ 70.) He wanted to advocate against legislation that would increase spending on education and training for families in need. (Verified Compl. ¶¶ 37, 69.) After initially requiring Felkner to work with his classmates, Professor Pearlmutter relented and permitted Felkner to form a group consisting of non-SSW members to advocate in class for the defeat of the bill and to present the project to the class. Id. at ¶¶ 69, 70.

Throughout this period, Felkner continued to publicize his disagreements with RIC on his website. Id. at ¶¶ 59, 72, 82. It is significant to note that at the beginning of the course, RIC had provided students with a course description which stressed: "Maintenance of complete confidentiality regarding issues that may be raised in class. Discussions that occur here stay here and are not meant to be conveyed into public spaces." (Pl.'s Ex. 23 at 3.) However, much of Felkner's website commentary was based upon recordings that he had made during class which triggered confidentiality concerns among his classmates. (Pl.'s Ex. 64.) When Professor Pearlmutter allowed students to express these concerns during an in-class discussion, Felkner recorded the discussion and posted details about the incident on his website. (Verified Compl. ¶ 73.)

Professor Pearlmutter then filed an ethics charge with ASC against Felkner, asserting that he had violated the NASW Code of Ethics with respect to those sections governing respect and confidentiality between colleagues and the prohibition on deception. See Pl.'s Ex. 25. After notice, ASC conducted a hearing and found that Felkner had violated the ethics code when he "deceptively audio-taped a conversation with Dr. Pearlmutter . . . ." (Pl.'s Ex. 36 at 1.) The ASC made certain recommendations to Dr. Olsen, one of which was that as a condition of remaining in the program Felkner agree in writing to "refrain from any deceptive audio or video copying of conversations with social work colleagues and refrain from any audio or video copying without express permission from them." Id. Felkner took no appeal from the recommendation in spite of receiving notice of his right to do so.

Felkner's final degree requirements involved both an integrative project and a field placement requirement as part of his SWOP concentration. (Defs.' Ex. DD.) Felkner sought to satisfy both aspects of this requirement by working as an intern in the Governor's office on his social welfare reform legislation. (Verified Compl. ¶¶ 87, 96.) Both Ryczek, who was the Director of Field Placements, and Dr. Olsen rejected the proposal as failing to implement all of the program's mandatory objectives, several of which involved working toward progressive social change. Id. at ¶¶ 89-90; Pl.'s Ex. 38. Felkner complained to Dean Bennett-Speight, and she transferred Felkner from Ryczek to Mueller, who took over as his field placement supervisor. (Verified Compl. ¶ 93.)

Although Mueller at first refused to give Felkner permission to work on welfare reform for either of his projects, in October 2005, the school relented as it related to his field placement proposal, but not his integrative project. Id. at ¶¶ 94-96. Having been denied permission to work on welfare reform for the integrative project, Felkner chose an alternative topic of healthcare reform, and that topic was approved. Id. at ¶ 97. However, after Felkner accepted the alternative healthcare reform project, he expressed a concern that the topic did "not advanc[e] his professional goals . . . ." Id. at ΒΆ 99. On November 30, 2005, he renewed his ...

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