A judge may allow a party leave to amend a pleading, in some cases to add facts or to clarify an issue. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently heard a case where a plaintiff was given a chance to amend his complaint, but not a second.
This case dealt with David Alson’s two-year suspension from Kean University because of his allegedly inappropriate behavior toward another student Sarah Blood.
Alston disagreed with the suspension and contended that Kean acted improperly during the university-disciplinary proceedings. He filed a complaint in the District Court, seeking $3 million in compensatory damages against Kean, Blood, and Dr. Phillip H. Witt, a psychologist, who examined him in connection with the disciplinary matter. The District Court reviewed his initial complaint and concluded that it failed to set forth any basis for federal jurisdiction. However, the court granted Alston 30 days to file an amended complaint. Alston filed an amended complaint, which was virtually identical to his initial complaint, but added an assertion that the claims arose under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Witt and Kean filed motions to dismiss, while Blood filed an answer. Alston then sought leave to file a second amended complaint; he also provided his proposed second amended complaint. The District Court granted the motions to dismiss, concluding that Kean University was not a “person” for purposes of § 1983 and was immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment, that Alston had failed to state a claim as to Witt, and that it would be futile to permit Alston to amend his complaint again. Subsequently, the Court also dismissed Alston’s claims against Blood, which ended the trial level case. Alston then filed a notice of appeal to the Third Circuit, as well as a motion under Rule 60(b) in the District Court, in which he sought leave to amend his complaint and for the District Court Judge to disqualify herself from his case. The District Court denied that motion, and Alston then filed another notice of appeal. The two appeals were consolidated before the Circuit Court of Appeals. The Third Circuit said that it saw no error in the District Court’s handling of the case. First, it agreed that Alston failed to state a claim on which relief may be granted as to Witt. To avoid dismissal, a complaint’s “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." The complaint “must not be so undeveloped that it does not provide a defendant the type of notice of claim which is contemplated by [Fed.R.Civ.P. 8].” The Third Circuit held that Alston’s amended complaint didn’t contain a single allegation of wrongdoing concerning Witt, so it was appropriate for the District Court to grant the motion to dismiss. The Third Circuit also held that while Alston’s proposed second amended complaint included slightly more factual detail, it still presented merely general grievances about Witt, stating conclusively, for instance, that he was “biased” and overly blunt. The Court of Appeals said that vague assertions such as these were insufficient to state a claim. As a result, the District Court didn’t abuse its discretion in denying Alston’s request to amend. With respect to Kean, the Third Circuit held that Alston explicitly abandoned any challenge to the District Court’s conclusion that the claims in his amended complaint failed as a matter of law. Alston argued only that he should have been permitted to amend his complaint to assert claims against Kean arising under the Fourteenth Amendment. However, the Third Circuit said it would have been futile for Alston to amend his complaint in that manner. To the extent that Alston would use § 1983 as the vehicle to assert his Fourteenth Amendment claim, the Eleventh Amendment would still bar the claim, and Alston couldn’t avoid that by asserting a freestanding claim under the Fourteenth Amendment. So the District Court didn’t err in denying leave to amend. The Third Circuit emphasized (as did the District Court) that the Eleventh Amendment barred his suit against the university. Finally, the District Court didn’t err in denying Alston’s Rule 60(b) motion. To the extent that the motion was founded on Alston’s contention that he should have been granted leave to amend, the claim failed. To the extent that the motion turned on Alston’s claim that the District Judge should have disqualified herself, the motion lacked merit because there was no basis for her disqualification. The District Court’s orders were affirmed. Alston v. Kean University, — Fed.Appx. —-, 2013 WL 6670997 (C.A.3 (N.J.) December 19, 2013).