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Sadid v. Vailas

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 28, 2013

HABIB SADID, Plaintiff,
v.
ARTHUR VAILAS, RICHARD JACOBSEN, GRAHAM GARNER, DAVID BEARD, and JOHN/JANE DOES I through Z, whose true identities are presently unknown, Defendant

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For Habib Sadid, Plaintiff: Ronaldo Arthur Coulter, Camacho Mendoza Coulter Law Group, PLLC, Eagle, ID.

For Arthur Vailas, Richard Jacobsen, Defendants: John A Bailey, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEY, Carol Tippi Volyn, RACINE OLSON NYE BUDGE & BAILEY, Pocatello, ID.

For David Beard, Graham Garner, Defendants: John A Bailey, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEY, RACINE OLSON NYE BUDGE & BAILEY, Pocatello, ID.

OPINION

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B. Lynn Winmill, Chief United States District Judge.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

In 2008, Dr. Habib Sadid, then a tenured professor at Idaho State University (" ISU" ), sued Arthur Vailas, the university's president, and Richard Jacobsen, the dean of the College of Engineering, in Idaho state court for retaliating against him for publicly criticizing their job performances. Approximately six weeks before the state court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, Dr. Sadid was fired from his position in the College of Engineering.

Dr. Sadid later brought suit in this Court alleging that President Vailas; Dean Jacobsen; Graham Garner, the public relations director for ISU; and Dr. David Beard, the lone dissenter on the grievance committee, violated his civil rights, notably his rights to speech and due process, and committed various state law torts by terminating him and by publishing the circumstances of his termination in the student newspaper.

The defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds that, among other things, Dr. Sadid's claims are barred by res judicata and each defendant is entitled to qualified immunity. Dr. Sadid moved for partial summary judgment on his due process claims. The court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § § 1331, 1343, and 1367, and will grant the defendant's motion for summary judgment and deny Dr. Sadid's motion for summary judgment.

BACKGROUND

From 1994 until 2009, Dr. Sadid worked as a tenured professor at ISU in the College of Engineering. First Amend. Compl., Dkt. 39, ¶ ¶ 14-15. During his tenure, Dr. Sadid criticized the university's and college's administrations as inept, corrupt, and secretive. Dr. Sadid first levied these claims over a planned merger of the College of Engineering with the College of Technology that he felt was developed without necessary faculty and community input. Dkt. 124 at 6. Initially, Dr. Sadid voiced his displeasure in a letter to ISU faculty and administrators. Id. When the

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plan resurfaced, he took his argument to the public in a guest column that appeared in the regional newspaper, the Idaho State Journal. Id.

Close to this time, Dr. Sadid was the subject of what he believed were retaliatory acts taken by the administration in response to his criticisms. Id. The allegations of retaliation included the defendants' failure to perform his yearly evaluation between 2001 and 2006, not being appointed as the chair of the College of Engineering in 2006, and being disparaged in an email written by a colleague in 2008. Id. These acts prompted Dr. Sadid to sue ISU and the author of the email in state court for (1) violating his First Amendment rights, (3) breaching his employment contract and the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and (3) defaming his character. Id. at 7. Dr. Sadid filed his suit in the District Court for the Sixth Judicial District of Idaho on September 29, 2008. Sadid v. Idaho State Univ., Case No. CV-2008-39420C. [1]

While his lawsuit was pending, Dr. Sadid continued to criticize university and college administrators, most notably President Vailas and Dean Jacobsen, in his columns published in the local newspaper and in his interactions with staff and colleagues. See, e.g., Dkt. 88-5, Ex. D; Dkt. 88-6, Ex. E. On November 16, 2008, Dr. Sadid published a guest column in the Idaho State Journal entitled " Are President Vailas's policies damaging ISU?" In the column, Dr. Sadid claimed that President Vailas " [paid] only lip-service to education," abused his power, retaliated against opposing voices, created a culture of cronyism, and was using ISU as a stepping stone to a more prestigious institution. Dkt. 88-3 at 2.

Dr. Sadid's clashes with the administration carried over into a faculty meeting presided over by Dean Jacobsen on April 21, 2009. At the start of the meeting, Dr. Sadid criticized the college's faculty evaluation process as arbitrary and potentially damaging to professors' careers, citing his own mediocre evaluation as an example of an unjustifiable result. Audio Recording of Apr. 21, 2009 Meeting, Dkt. 102, Ex. B, at 00:05:29 to 00:18:00. [2] During a discussion about an upcoming review of the college, Dr. Sadid emphasized the need for faculty input and attacked President Vailas for failing to change what he described as a culture of corruption that had plagued the university for over twenty years. Id. at 00:35:28 to 00:36:38. In response to other attendees' concerns over infighting in the college, Dr. Sadid stated that " [Dean Jacobsen] was the only person responsible for creating friction among faculty." Id. at 01:11:28.

After this meeting, Dean Jacobsen issued to Dr. Sadid a notice of contemplated action (" NOCA" ). Dkt. 91, Ex. F. The NOCA informed Dr. Sadid that Dean Jacobsen was considering recommending Dr. Sadid for dismissal, in part, because his " aggressive, angry, and hostile outbursts have created tension and a sense of fear among much of the administrative staff." Id. at 3. Dean Jacobsen invited him to a private meeting to present " any reason, evidence, or information in opposition to that contemplated action." Id. The meeting, however, did not change Dean Jacobsen's mind, and he recommended to President

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Vailas that Dr. Sadid be terminated from his position. See Dkt. 92, Ex. I.

On August 4, 2009, President Vailas informed Dr. Sadid of Dean Jacobsen's recommendation and placed Dr. Sadid on administrative leave until President Vailas made the final decision. Id. at 2. President Vailas indicated, however, that he would withhold his decision until Dr. Sadid presented his case to the university's grievance committee in accordance with ISU's policies. See id. Attached to President Vailas's letter was a five-page memorandum prepared by Dean Jacobsen.

The memorandum stated that Dean Jacobsen believed Dr. Sadid should be dismissed for cause and listed several examples of his behavior that contributed to Dean Jacobsen's conclusion. Id. at 15-20. For example, it stated that Dr. Sadid made " several accusatory, threatening, and denigrating comments about [Dean Jacobsen] and other individuals," id at 16, and made " obscene gestures" at a provost and his spouse, id. at 19. The letter also cites staff member Patricia Goldbeck's need to be " hyper-sensitive around Dr. Sadid" lest she end up on his " blacklist." Id. at 18. The most specific example of the tension allegedly caused by Dr. Sadid's actions can be found in the following passage describing the reaction of Annie Havlicak, a staff member, to an argument between Dr. Sadid and Dean Jacobsen:

Also, [Havlicak] once overheard, from her office, Dr. Sadid yelling in an angry voice at me in my office. Given her prior history in witnessing Dr. Sadid loudly and angrily berating the former Dean in a classroom - at a time when she was an engineering student some years earlier - she experienced severe anxiety and fear of imminent violence, to the extent that she prepared an escape plan from her office, planning to crawl up through the drop ceiling in order to avoid Dr. Saadid [sic]."

Id. at 17 (emphasis added).

On August 27, 2009, shortly after Vailas suspended him, Dr. Sadid moved to amend his state court complaint. Dkt. 85-1 at 66-77. In the amended complaint, which accompanied the motion, Dr. Sadid argued the amendment was necessary to account for " continued . . . retaliat[ion] against [him] . . . for exercising his rights to freedom of speech." Id. at 72. He listed Dean Jacobsen's recommendation and President Vailas's suspension order as examples of retaliatory acts, and, on the basis of those acts, added them as defendants to the suit. Id. at 68-69, 72-73.

While Dr. Sadid's motion to amend awaited resolution, the original defendants to his suit filed a motion for summary judgment. Dkt. 124 at 7. In response, Dr. Sadid moved for additional time to conduct discovery. Id. The state court granted Dr. Sadid an extension of time, granted his motion to amend, and scheduled a hearing on the defendants' motion for summary judgment for November 2, 2009. In light of reopening discovery, the court allowed Dr. Sadid and the defendants to set a mutually agreeable due date for Dr. Sadid's opposition memorandum and the defendants' reply brief. See Oct. 26, 2009 Minute Entry & Order, Sadid v. ISU et al, Case No. CV2008-3942-OC (Idaho State Court, Bannock County) (" The Court will not set a new briefing schedule, and will leave that to the parties to negotiate." ). Afterward, Dr. Sadid filed his opposition papers on October 30, 2009. See State Court ROA Report, October 30, 2009 entries.

Meanwhile, Dr. Sadid's grievance proceeding was underway at ISU. The proceedings lasted for several weeks as Dr. Sadid and the administration presented their cases. Among the witnesses who

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testified during the hearing process were Goldbeck, Havlicak, and a third staff member, Ronda Mahl. Each woman testified that the confrontation between Dr. Sadid and Dean Jacobsen that the NOCA referenced made them fear for their safety, although each also stated that Dr. Sadid had never directly threatened them with violence. See Goldbeck Depo., Dkt. 87-1 at 4-5 and Dkt. 88-22 at 5; Havlicak Depo., Dkt. 87, Ex. 1 at 55-57 and Dkt. 88-21 at 3-6; Mahl Depo., Dkt. 87-1 at 2 and Dkt. 88-23 at 6. [3] At the conclusion of the hearing, the grievance committee recommended that Dr. Sadid be reinstated. Dkt. 88-11 at 2. The committee's recommendation, however, was not binding on President Vailas.

President Vailas rejected the committee's recommendation and terminated Dr. Sadid's employment. See Dkt. 88-13. President Vailas explained his reasoning to Dr. Sadid in a letter dated October 29, which stated that Dr. Sadid's termination was effective " at the end of business" the next day - October 30, 2009. Id. at 10. " One of the most compelling issues" to President Vailas was the abusive nature of and toxic atmosphere created by Dr. Sadid's behavior. Id. at 3. The strongest evidence for his conclusion was Goldbeck's, Mahl's, and Havlicak's testimony, id. ¶ 1, but their testimony was by no measure the only evidence President Vailas cited to support his conclusion, id. ¶ ¶ 2, 4, 7-8, 12, 15.

Coincidentally, the parties completed their state-court summary-judgment briefing on October 30, 2009 - the same day Dr. Sadid's termination was to become effective. See State Court ROA Report. A few days later, on November 2, 2009, the state court heard argument on the defendants' motion for summary judgment, and issued its ruling on December 18, 2009. Dkt. 124. The court " deem[ed] the summary judgment motion to be against the [a]mended [c]omplaint and against all defendants." Id. at 8. The court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on all counts, id. at 28, and the Idaho Supreme Court affirmed the judgment, Sadid v. Idaho State University, 151 Idaho 932, 265 P.3d 1144 (Idaho 2011).

While the summary judgment motion was pending, Dr. Sadid's discharge garnered a significant amount of attention in the local and college press. The Idaho State Journal ran an article entitled " Prof. Fired." The article detailed the circumstances surrounding Dr. Sadid's termination and quoted from the portion of President Vailas's termination letter that discussed Goldbeck's, Mahl's, and Havlicak's safety concerns. Dkt. 87 at 22. Following that story, the ISU Bengal published an article insinuating that the decision to terminate Dr. Sadid was political. See Dkt. 88-15. That article prompted Garner to issue a statement explaining Dr. Sadid's termination. The ISU Bengal published Garner's statements in a second article on November 18, 2009. The article quotes Garner as saying, " This firing was not politically motivated . . . However, [Dr. Sadid] presented a lot of safety issues. There were many individuals who filed reports where they claimed Sadid threatened them." Id.

Ultimately, Dr. Sadid chose to forego the option of appealing President Vailas's termination decision to the Idaho State Board of Education (" Board" ). Instead, he filed this suit on March 15, 2011. He alleges seven claims for relief against all defendants as follows:

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First, he alleges defendants violated his First Amendment rights by firing him because of his speech during the faculty meeting.
Second, Dr. Sadid alleges two procedural due process violations: (1) that the NOCA and the August 4, 2009, letter failed to provide him adequate notice of the grounds for which he was terminated; and (2) that his criticisms of President Vailas disqualified Vailas from passing judgment on his employment status. [4]
Third, Dr. Sadid alleges that by labeling him a safety concern in the media, the defendants violated his substantive due process right to continue his career as a professor.
Fourth, he alleges that the defendants arbitrarily singled him out for termination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Fifth, he alleges that defendants tortiously interfered with the " tenure contract" between Dr. Sadid and ISU.
Sixth, Dr. Sadid alleges that the publication labeling him a safety concern defamed his reputation.
Seventh, and finally, Dr. Sadid alleges that defendants intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon him, based upon the aggregate of these acts.

See First Am. Compl., Dkt. 39.

Broadly speaking, these claims differ from the claims alleged in state court because they were triggered by later events - namely, Dr. Sadid's firing and comments made after the firing. The state-court complaint did not include claims based on these later events, focusing instead on earlier, alleged retaliatory acts, such as, for example, the defendants' alleged failure to conduct Dr. Sadid's annual performance evaluations. This case is now before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.

LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate where a movant can show that, as to any claim or defense, " there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). When the non-moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may carry its initial burden by " produc[ing] evidence negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's case, or, after suitable discovery, . . . [by showing] that the nonmoving party does not have enough evidence of an essential element of its claim or defense to carry its ultimate burden of persuasion at trial." Nissan Fire & Marine Ins. Co., Ltd. v. Fritz Cos., Inc., 210 F.3d 1099, 1106 (9th Cir. 2000). " Once the moving party carries its initial burden, the adverse party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the adverse party's pleading, but must provide affidavits or other sources of evidence that set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Devereaux v. Abbey, 263 F.3d 1070, 1076 (9th Cir. 2001) (en banc) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Because the parties are before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment, the Court has considered each motion on its own merits. See Fair Hous. Council of Riverside Cnty., Inc. v. Riverside Two, 249 F.3d 1132, 1136 (9th Cir. 2001).

ANALYSIS

1. Res Judicata

Defendants first argue that the favorable resolution they ...


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