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Rodriguez v. Finan

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

March 31, 2016

ANTONIO ROJAS RODRIGUEZ, CRISTAL CARRENO, and ALAN VELASQUEZ, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
JOHN L. FINAN, et al. Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

Bruce Howe Hendricks United States District Judge

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification (ECF No. 10) and Defendants’ Finan, Parker, Settlemyer, Hofferth, Seckinger, Munns, Horne, Kuhl, Phillips, Temple, Lynn, Love, Batson, Whitaker, and Carullo (“CHE Defendents”) motion to dismiss or for judgment on the pleadings (ECF No. 59). For the reasons set forth in this Order, Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification is denied with permission to refile once an adequate factual record has been developed, and Defendants’ motion to dismiss is denied.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This case is about regulations promulgated by the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education (“Commission” or “CHE”) that have been interpreted to classify students who are U.S. citizens residing in the State of South Carolina, and dependent upon parents with undocumented federal immigration status also residing in South Carolina, as non-residents for purposes of in-state tuition, state financial aid, and state scholarship eligibility. Plaintiffs, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, have alleged that this classification as non-residents is unjustly and unconstitutionally applied to them solely because of their parents’ unlawful immigration status. When classified as a non-resident, students pay significantly higher tuition rates to attend South Carolina’s public colleges and universities, (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 43-44), and are denied certain forms of state financial aid and state scholarships at both public and private post-secondary institutions. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants’ policy of classifying U.S. citizen dependent students as non-residents, when they would otherwise be eligible for in-state residency, based solely on their parents’ immigration status, violates their right to equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 5.)

Plaintiffs are all dependent U.S. citizens who aspire to earn degrees from South Carolina post-secondary institutions. Plaintiff Antonio Rojas Rodriguez is a U.S. citizen by birth. He has resided continuously with his mother in Summerville, South Carolina for approximately ten years. Plaintiff Rodriguez attended public high school in Goose Creek, South Carolina and upon graduating was accepted for enrollment at the College of Charleston in June of 2015. During the admissions process Plaintiff Rodriguez was classified as a “non-resident” by the College of Charleston, and he alleges that such classification was because he is dependent on his mother and was unable to prove that she has lawful immigration status. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 5.) As a result of this classification as a “non-resident, ” Plaintiff Rodriguez stood to pay significantly higher tuition at an out-of-state rate, and was deemed ineligible for state academic merit scholarships and need-based grants for which he otherwise qualified. When he filed this complaint, Plaintiff Rodriguez represented that he would not be able to afford to enroll at the College of Charleston because his residency classification denied him access to all of this financial relief. (Id.) However, as of the date of this Order, Plaintiff Rodriguez has entered into a settlement agreement with Defendant Glenn McConnell, in his official capacity as President of the College of Charleston, wherein the College confirmed to Plaintiff Rodriguez that he is now classified as an in-state student for tuition and financial aid purposes, and Plaintiff Rodriguez agreed to release all claims against the College arising from his original residency determination. (ECF No. 89-1 at 1, 4.) On October 30, 2015, the Court entered a Consent Order dismissing Plaintiff Rodriguez’s claims against the College of Charleston with prejudice. (ECF No. 91.)

Plaintiff Cristal Carreno is a U.S. citizen by birth. She has resided continuously with her parents in Inman, South Carolina, for approximately nineteen years. She is currently a full-time student at Converse College (“Converse”) in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where she entered her junior year in the fall of 2015. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 6.) Plaintiff Carreno alleges that she has been classified as a “non-resident” because she is a dependent of her parents and is unable to show that they have lawful immigration status. (Id.) She further claims that as a result of this finding of non-residency, she has been denied thousands of dollars in state academic merit scholarships and need-based grants for which she otherwise qualifies. (Id.) At the time she filed her complaint, Plaintiff Carreno represented that if she could not secure this state financial aid for the 2015-2016 academic year, she would be forced to borrow large amounts of money to cover her tuition costs and would likely have to obtain another part-time job in addition to her current job and course load. (Id.)

Plaintiff Alan Velasquez is a U.S. citizen by birth. He has lived in North Charleston, South Carolina for the past seventeen years. Plaintiff Velasquez graduated from Trident Baptist Academy in Goose Creek, South Carolina in June 2014 and became a member of the South Carolina Air National Guard. He applied to Trident Technical College (“Trident”) in Charleston and was granted admission, with the plan of beginning attendance in the fall 2015 semester. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 7.) Plaintiff Velasquez alleges that Trident classified him as a “non-resident” because he is a dependent of his mother and is unable to show that she has lawful immigration status. (Id.) When he filed his complaint, Plaintiff Velasquez represented that he would be assessed a higher out-of-state tuition rate, as well as precluded from eligibility for state scholarships and need-based grants, as a result of his classification of non-residency. (Id.) He further represented that the “non-resident” tuition rate and denial of state financial aid would likely preclude him from enrolling at Trident because he could not afford it. (Id.) However, as of the date of this Order, Plaintiff Velasquez has entered into a settlement agreement with Defendant Mary Thornley, in her official capacity as President of Trident, wherein Trident confirmed to Plaintiff Velasquez that he is now classified as an in-state student for tuition and financial aid purposes, and Plaintiff Velasquez agreed to release all claims against Trident arising from his original residency determination. (ECF No. 89-2 at 1, 3.) On October 30, 2015, the Court entered a Consent Order dismissing Plaintiff Velasquez’s claims against Trident with prejudice. (ECF No. 91.)

Defendant Glenn McConnell is the President of the College of Charleston. Plaintiffs alleged that in his role as President, Mr. McConnell exercised managerial and administrative authority for the ongoing operations of the College of Charleston. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 23.) Defendant McConnell was sued in his official capacity only. As noted above, all claims against Mr. McConnell have been dismissed with prejudice. (ECF No. 91.)

Defendant Mary Thornley is the President of Trident Technical College. Plaintiffs alleged that in her role as President, Dr. Thornley exercised managerial and administrative authority for the ongoing operations of Trident. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 24.) Defendant Thornley was sued in her official capacity only. As noted above, all claims against Dr. Thornley have been dismissed with prejudice. (ECF No. 91.)

Defendant John Finan is the Chairman of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education. Defendant Finan was appointed to this position by the Governor of South Carolina for a term of four years. S.C. Code § 59-103-10(4). Defendant Finan is sued in his official capacity. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 8.)

Defendant Julie Carullo is the interim Executive Director of the CHE. Plaintiffs allege that in her role as interim Executive Director, Ms. Carullo is the chief administrator of the CHE, recommends policies and implements procedures, and directs all operations of the CHE. (Id. at ¶ 22.) Defendant Carullo is sued in her official capacity only.

Defendants Clark Parker, Jennifer Settlemyer, Tim Hofferth, Terrye Seckinger, Charles Munns, Bettie Rose Horne, Dianne Kuhl, Kim Phillips, Hood Temple, Louis Lynn, Allison Love, Paul Batson, and Evans Whitaker are all members of the CHE. They were appointed to their respective positions by the Governor of South Carolina for terms of either two or four years. S.C. Code § 59-103-10. They are each sued in their official capacity. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 9-21.)

Plaintiffs filed their class action complaint on June 8, 2015 requesting that the Court:

Certify this matter as a class action pursuant to Rule 23(a) and (b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure;
Declare that the challenged policies of classifying dependent students as non-residents for tuition, scholarship, and grant purposes solely because they lack proof of their parents’ citizenship or immigration status violate the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution;
Enjoin Defendant McConnell from requiring Plaintiff Antonio Rojas Rodriguez and similarly-situated students to provide proof of their parents’ citizenship or immigration status in order to be classified as South Carolina residents for tuition purposes at the College of Charleston;
Enjoin Defendant Thornley from requiring Plaintiff Alan Velasquez and similarly-situated students to provide proof of their parents’ citizenship or immigration status in order to be classified as South Carolina residents for tuition purposes at Trident Technical College;
Enjoin the CHE Defendants from denying Plaintiffs Antonio Rojas Rodriguez, Cristal Carreno, Alan Velasquez, and similarly-situated students the Palmetto Fellows, LIFE, and/or HOPE scholarships, as well as the S.C. Need-Based Grant and/or Lottery Tuition Assistance, based solely on their inability to provide proof of their parents’ citizenship or immigration status;
Enjoin the CHE Defendants from requiring that dependent U.S. citizen students who reside in South Carolina provide proof of their parents’ citizenship or immigration status for purposes of eligibility for in-state ...

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