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Buxton v. Kurtinitis

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

July 7, 2017

DUSTIN BUXTON, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
SANDRA KURTINITIS, individually and in her official capacity as President of The Community College of Baltimore County; CAROL EUSTIS, individually and in her official capacity as Dean of Instruction for the School of Health Professions at The Community College of Baltimore County; ADRIENNE DOUGHERTY, individually and in her official capacity as Program Director and Coordinator of Radiation Therapy at The Community College of Baltimore County; CHARLES MARTINO, individually and in his official capacity as Academic Advisor for the School of Health Professions at The Community College of Baltimore County; EBONY THOMAS, individually and in her official capacity as Coordinator for Selective Admissions in the School of Health Professions at The Community College of Baltimore County, Defendants - Appellees. CHRISTIAN LEGAL SOCIETY; NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF EVANGELICALS, Amici Supporting Appellant.

          Argued: May 10, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. J. Frederick Motz, Senior District Judge. (1:14-cv-02836-JFM)

         ARGUED:

          Carly Farrell Gammill, AMERICAN CENTER FOR LAW & JUSTICE, Franklin, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Peter Stephen Saucier, KOLLMAN & SAUCIER, P.A., Timonium, Maryland, for Appellees.

         ON BRIEF:

          Abigail A. Southerland, Franklin, Tennessee, Michelle K. Terry, Greenville, South Carolina, Francis J. Manion, AMERICAN CENTER FOR LAW & JUSTICE, New Hope, Kentucky; John Garza, GARZA LAW FIRM, P.A., Rockville, Maryland, for Appellant.

          Clifford B. Geiger, Bernadette M. Hunton, KOLLMAN & SAUCIER, P.A., Timonium, Maryland, for Appellees.

          Thomas C. Berg, Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic, UNIVERSITY OF ST. THOMAS SCHOOL OF LAW, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Kimberlee Wood Colby, CENTER FOR LAW AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, Springfield, Virginia, for Amici Curiae.

          Before TRAXLER, FLOYD, and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.

         Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Floyd wrote the opinion, in which Judge Traxler and Judge Harris joined.

          FLOYD, Circuit Judge:

         Plaintiff-Appellant, Dustin Buxton, applied and was denied admission into the Radiation Therapy Program (RTP) at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) in 2013 and 2014. Buxton brought this action alleging that points were deducted from his application score and that he was denied admission because of his expression of his religious beliefs during his interview in violation of the Free Speech Clause, the Establishment Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause. The district court dismissed Buxton's Free Speech claim and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on Buxton's Establishment Clause and Equal Protection claims. Buxton timely appealed his Free Speech and Establishment Clause claims. We affirm.

         I

         Dustin Buxton applied to the RTP at the CCBC in 2013 and again in 2014. Adrienne Dougherty, is the Director of the RTP at the CCBC. The RTP is a competitive program, and Dougherty limits the number of persons who can be admitted to the RTP based on the availability of clinical placement opportunities. Around 15 students are admitted each year.

         In order to meet the minimum qualification for consideration, applicants must have attained a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 2.5 and a grade of "C" or better in certain prerequisite courses. In one of the prerequisite courses, students complete an observation day at a local hospital, and radiation therapists working at the hospital provide Dougherty with feedback about the students they encounter.

          At the first stage of the application process, applicants receive numerical scores based on (1) their GPA and (2) their observation day. The top qualified candidates are then invited to a second stage, which consists of a logic exam, a writing sample, and a panel interview. Applicants' final admissions scores are made up of three components: (1) GPA, worth 30%; (2) interview and observation day, worth 40%; and (3) a writing sample and critical thinking exam, worth a combined 30%. The candidates with the highest scores are admitted into the RTP.

         Buxton applied for admission to the 2013 RTP and, based on his scores from the first stage, was invited to participate in the second stage of the application process. Buxton's final application score ranked 36th out of the 44 candidates who received an interview. Buxton's scores in each individual category were as follows: his writing sample scored a 6 out of a possible 12 (tied for 36th); his pre-requisite course GPA scored an 18 out of a possible 30 (tied for 21st); his observation day score was a 7.2 out of a possible 12 (tied for 35th); his logic exam score was a 15.66 out of a possible 18 (7th); and his interview score was a 9.52 out of a possible 28 points (33rd). See J.A. 144- 51.

Dougherty's written review of Buxton's 2013 application states in its entirety:
The student did not receive very good feedback from his observation day. He told one of the therapists that he assumed he was guaranteed a spot in the program. He did state that he seemed like a bother to some of the therapists; however they felt he asked questions at inappropriate times, interrupting them at times, and were related to the engineering aspect of the field. In addition, the therapists said that he wrote down/typed everything they said. It was also noted that during a simulation procedure in which IV contrast was injected, he stated something along the lines that he did not sign on for this. This is minor, but the student did not follow directions

when asked to initial the admissions process. When responding to the questions on the written sample, he did not fully read the questions and respond to them in the role of a student. The interview committee felt he was not a good fit for this field. His answers to several of the questions were very textbook and lacked interpersonal skills. When asked about important characteristics that a therapist should have he responded with "not to socialize or fraternize" and then in the next sentence he brought up a sense of levity and that it is good to laugh. He also brought up religion a great deal during the interview. Yes, this is a field that involves death and dying; but religion cannot be brought up in the clinic by therapist [sic] or students. He mentioned plans to go onto [sic] complete a Dosimetry Program, but I do not think he has researched this career path fully. University of Maryland does offer a 1-year program, but they receive approximately 100 applicants and only have 2 seats available. Physics and Dosimetry may be a possible career path for him, but he lacks the interpersonal skills ...


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