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Whitfield v. College of Charleston

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

October 23, 2019

Jeffrey Whitfield, Plaintiff,
College of Charleston, Glenn F. McConnell, Chad Holbrook, Rick Detwiler, Callison Tighe & Robinson, LLC, and Matthew Roberts, both in their official and individual capacities, Defendants.



         Before the Court is a motion for judgment on the pleadings brought by the College of Charleston, Glenn McConnell and Matthew Roberts. (Dkt. No. 17.) For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted.

         I. Background

         This matter arises out of Jeffrey Whitfield's August 2017 termination from his approximately two-year employment at the College of Charleston (the "College"). Whitfield claims that defendants conspired to terminate non-party Matthew Heath and replace him with defendant Holbrook as head baseball coach at the College, which in turn lead to Whitfield's termination as assistant baseball coach.[1] Whitfield also claims that the College, McConnell (the former president of the College), and Roberts (the director of athletics at the College) (collectively, "Moving Defendants") violated his civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by depriving him of procedural due process and his liberty interest in the job. Whitfield made no arguments in opposition to the Moving Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings.

         II. Legal Standard

         "After the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Motions brought under Rule 12(c) "dispose of cases in which there is no substantive dispute that warrants the litigants and the court proceeding further." Lewis v. Excel Meek, LLC, 2:13-CV-281-PMD, 2013 WL 4585873 at * 1 (D.S.C. Aug. 28, 2013) (quoting 5 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure, § 1368 (3d ed. 2010)). A judgment on the pleadings is only warranted if "the moving party has clearly established that no material issue of fact remains to be resolved and the party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."M at *2 (quoting Park Univ. Enters, v. Am. Cos. Co., 442 F.3d 1239, 1244 (10th Cir. 2006)).

         Rule 12(c) motions limit the court's review to the pleadings, Abell Co. v. Bait. Typographical Union No. 12, 338 F.2d 190, 193 (4th Cir. 1964), and to "any documents and exhibits attached to and incorporated into the pleadings," Lewis, 2013 WL 4585873 at *1 (citing Eagle Nation, Inc. v. Mkt. Force, Inc., 180 F.Supp.2d 752, 754 (E.D. N.C. 2001)). Like a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), motions pursuant to Rule 12(c) call for the pleadings to be construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Burbach Broad. Co. v. Elkins Radio Corp., 278 F.3d 401, 405-06 (4th Cir. 2002). Accordingly, "[t]he court must accept all well pleaded factual allegations in the non-moving party's pleadings as true and reject all contravening assertions in the moving party's pleadings as false." Lewis, 2013 WL 4585873, at *2 (quoting John S Clark Co., Inc. v. United Nat'l Ins. Co., 304 F.Supp.2d 758, 763 (M.D. N.C. 2004)).

         III. Discussion

         A. Count I for Civil Conspiracy among the College, McConnell and Roberts

         "Under South Carolina law, '[a] civil conspiracy . . . consists of three elements: (1) a combination of two or more persons, (2) for the purpose of injuring the plaintiff, (3) which causes him special damage.'" State Farm Life Ins. Co. v. Murphy, 260 F.Supp.3d 497, 503 (D.S.C. 2017) (quoting Lee v. Chesterfield Gen. Hosp., Inc., 344 S.E.2d 379, 382 (1986)). "A claim for civil conspiracy must allege additional facts in furtherance of a conspiracy rather than reallege other claims within the complaint." Hackworth v. Greywood at Hammett, LLC, 682 S.E.2d 871, 874 (S.C. 2009)). "Moreover, because the essence of a civil conspiracy claim is the special damage resulting to the plaintiff, the alleged damages must exceed the damages alleged for the plaintiffs other claims." Murphy, 260 F.Supp.3d at 503; see also Pye v. Fox, 633 S.E.2d 505, 511 (S.C. 2006) ("Because the quiddity of a civil conspiracy claim is the damage resulting to the plaintiff, the damages alleged must go beyond the damages alleged in other causes of action."). "If a plaintiff merely repeats the damages from another claim instead of specifically listing special damages as part of their civil conspiracy claim, their conspiracy claim should be dismissed." Hackworth, 682 S.E.2d at 875.

         As an initial matter, the College is immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment in that it is designated as a state college or university by South Carolina law. S.C. Code. Ann. § 59-101-10; see also Maryland Stadium Auth. V. Ellerbe Becket, Inc., 407 F.3d 255, 262-63 (4th Cir. 2005) ("Numerous courts have decided whether public state universities are 'arms of the state.' Almost universally, the answer has been in the affirmative. . . . We, too, have previously treated several public universities as arms of the state." (collecting cases).

         Even if the College were not immune from suit, "[a] civil conspiracy cannot be found to exist when the acts alleged are those of employees or directors, in their official capacity, conspiring with the corporation." McMillan v. Oconee Mem. Hosp., 626 S.E.2d 884, 887 (S.C. 2006). The complaint alleges that McConnell and Roberts were employed by the College at the relevant time and acted "in their capacities at the College" when conspiring to terminate non-party Heath. (Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 40.) Therefore, as pled there could be no conspiracy between the College on the one hand and McConnell or Roberts on the other.

         As to whether the complaint sufficiently alleges conspiracy between McConnell and Roberts, the pleadings state merely that McConnell and Roberts were sent emails "outlining just how and why" to terminate non-party Heath, and that Roberts at one point was quoted in a local newspaper as saying staff terminations can create ripple effects on "assistant coaches, spouses and kids." (Id. ¶¶ 40, 46.) Such "conclusory allegations" are insufficient to withstand judgment on the pleadings here. Murphy, 260 F.Supp.3d 497 at 504 (granting motion to dismiss civil conspiracy claim). Regarding special damages in particular, the complaint alleges merely that Whitfield "has suffered special damages as a result of the actions of the conspirators." (Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 47.) Although Whitfield does not "merely reallege[] the same damages" in relation to the other claims, which seek compensatory and punitive damages, Doe v. Erskine College, No. 8:04-23001-RBH, 2006 WL 1473853, *17 (D.S.C. May 25, 2006), this one-sentence allegation is falls short of "specifically alleg[ing]" the damages that flowed from any conspiracy, Hackworth, 682 S.E.2d at 875 ("Special damages must, therefore, be specifically alleged in the complaint to avoid surprise to the other party.").

         For these reasons, construing the complaint's allegations in a light most favorable to Whitfield, they fail to support a claim for civil conspiracy among the College, McConnell and Roberts. Moving ...

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