United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
LYNWOOD SMITH, District Judge.
Plaintiff, Donnetta Blow, asserts claims against Virginia College, her former employer, for: race discrimination pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; race discrimination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981; and retaliation. The case currently is before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment. Upon consideration of the motion, briefs, and evidentiary submissions, the court concludes the motion should be granted.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that a court "shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that 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). In other words, summary judgment is proper "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). "In making this determination, the court must review all evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing summary judgment." Chapman v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1023 (11th Cir. 2000) ( en banc ) (quoting Haves v. City of Miami, 52 F.3d 918, 921 (11th Cir. 1995)). Inferences in favor of the non-moving party are not unqualified, however. "[A]n inference is not reasonable if it is only a guess or a possibility, for such an inference is not based on the evidence, but is pure conjecture and speculation." Daniels v. Twin Oaks Nursing Home, 692 F.2d 1321, 1324 (11th Cir. 1983) (alteration supplied). Moreover,
[t]he mere existence of some factual dispute will not defeat summary judgment unless that factual dispute is material to an issue affecting the outcome of the case. The relevant rules of substantive law dictate the materiality of a disputed fact. A genuine issue of material fact does not exist unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a reasonable jury to return a verdict in its favor.
Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1023 (quoting Haves, 52 F.3d at 921) (emphasis and alteration supplied). See also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986) (asking "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law").
II. SUMMARY OF FACTS
A. Background Information and Plaintiff's Employment History
Defendant, Virginia College, is a private higher education institution with campuses in several locations, including Huntsville, Alabama. Plaintiff, Donnetta Blow, began working for Virginia College as a receptionist in the Admissions Office at the Huntsville, Alabama campus on June 9, 2008. She was promoted to the position of Admissions Associate I, with more than a fifty percent pay raise, on August 11, 2008. All Admissions Associates were "responsible for the recruitment and selection of qualified applicants for admission to programs of Virginia College and for appropriate follow-up to assure successful matriculation." There are three levels of Admissions Associates at Virginia College: I, II, and III. Admissions Associates begin working at Level I (as did plaintiff), and they are expected to advance to Level II by the time of their second annual performance evaluation.
B. Evaluation Standards for Admissions Associates
Admissions Associates are evaluated based on certain performance standards set forth in the Virginia College Compensation Plan and Job Description Summary ("Compensation Plan). The performance standards and job responsibilities increase for each Level of Admissions Associate. For example, a Level I Admissions Associate is assigned an average of 18 "leads, " or potential recruits, each week, while a Level II receives an average of 21 leads, and a Level III receives an average of 24. In addition to the leads assigned by the College, each Admissions Associate is expected to independently generate referrals for recruitment development.
All Admissions Associates also are expected to convert a certain number of leads and referrals into applications, interviews, and enrollments, with the expectations increasing for each Level. An Admissions Associate I is expected to generate 10 appointments, 6 interviews, 3 applications, and 3 referrals each week. She also is expected to generate 20 new student starts each quarter, with 25% of those starts coming from independent referrals. Ninety percent of the students recruited by an Admissions Associate I are expected to remain enrolled after 30 days; 80% are expected to remain after 90 days, and 65% are expected to remain after 270 days. An Admissions Associate I is expected to convert 30% of her leads into interviews, 50% of her interviews into applications, 75% of her applications into enrollments, and 80% of her enrollments into "starts" ( i.e., students who actually start classes). Those numbers translate into an overall expectation that 8% of an Admission Associate I's initial leads ultimately will be converted to starts.
The expectations for a Level II Admissions Associate are slightly higher. An Admissions Associate II is expected to generate 12 appointments, 8 interviews, 4 applications, and 4 referrals each week. She also is expected to generate 25 new student starts each quarter, with 25% of those starts coming from independent referrals. As with the Admissions Associate I, ninety percent of the students recruited by an Admissions Associate II are expected to remain enrolled after 30 days; 80% are expected to remain after 90 days, and 65% are expected to remain after 270 days. An Admissions Associate II is expected to convert 32% of her leads into interviews, 50% of her interviews into applications, 75% of her applications into enrollments, and 80% of her enrollments into starts. Those numbers translate into an overall expectation that 10% of an Admission Associate II's initial leads ultimately will be converted to starts.
Admissions Associates are evaluated against those standards in a weekly Report Card, the purpose of which is to
review weekly performance with each Associate, have a standard form to communicate that activity, and formally record any remedial work that needs to be accomplished to get or remain on track. The Report Cards [also] measure pipeline activity and ensure that Associates are practicing effective stewardship of leads to achieve overall performance goals.
The Report Cards are based purely on objective data generated by the College's computerized record-keeping system. The primary areas reviewed each week by management are whether the employee met her weekly Referral and Application Targets, and whether she received an overall weekly performance score of at least 85.
Associates missing at least one of the measures each week must be monitored and coached to improve performance in the deficient area, and this should be noted on the Report Card. Associates failing to achieve two of the three measures in a week will earn a "strike." After three "strikes" in consecutive weeks, the Associate is automatically placed on a formal Performance Improvement Plan.
In addition to the objective criteria graded on the Report Card, each Admissions Associate is evaluated for "other qualitative issues germane to the Associate's overall performance such as scheduling, attendance, judgment, code of conduct, and professional behavior."
The Compensation Plan states the following with regard to the imposition of Performance Improvement Plans:
The goal of the Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) is to ensure the Associate clearly understands the requirements for success in the role and what steps are required to raise performance to a satisfactory level. In order to remain employed during the PIP, the Associate must demonstrate a reasonable performance improvement each week by meeting or exceeding targets in Referrals, Applications, and overall score....
An Associate who earns two additional "strikes" in the 30 Day PIP period may be terminated. An Admissions Associate who meets or exceeds the Referral, Application, and Overall Score objectives for three consecutive weeks in the PIP period earns his/her way off the performance plan. A PIP will last from 2-4 weeks depending on the performance of the Associate - it can lead to termination in as little as 2 weeks or lead to a return to "good-standing" employment status in three or four weeks.
Unsatisfactory performance can result from other factors than Report Card measurements, and should be handled in the same fashion and time frame. Examples include scheduling/attendance, professionalism, code of conduct, or other behavioral/judgment issues, irrespective of quantitative performance. For whatever reason, whenever substandard performance indicates possible termination, the DOA [ i.e., Director of Admissions] must seek and obtain the advice and support of the campus president and HR.
This PIP process will be implemented consistently in the ECA [ i.e., Education Corporation of America, the parent organization to Virginia College] Admissions organization. A manager who fails to implement this consistently is subject to his/her own performance and disciplinary action.
C. Assignment of Leads
Prospective student leads originate from a variety of sources. "Paid leads" are generated when a prospective student clicks on a Virginia College link or logo on an Internet site and provides contact information that is forwarded to an Admissions Associate for follow-up. Leads also may be generated through the "CARS System, " which connects interested telephone callers directly to available Admissions Associates. Finally, a lead may be generated when a "walk-in" student physically appears at the Admissions Office and expresses interest in attending the College.
Distribution of leads among the various Admissions Associates is controlled by the receptionist, who creates a distribution list each week based on the previous week's performance chart reflecting each Associate's number of enrollments, applications, referrals, interviews, and appointments. The receptionist ranks all of the Associates from highest to lowest, depending on their performance the previous week. The general practice was for the receptionist to distribute the leads in a "round-robin" fashion, beginning with the Associate whose name was on top of the distribution list. Once each Associate on the distribution list had received a lead, the receptionist would start again at the top of the list. Receptionists were supposed to ensure that the distribution of leads was as balanced as possible each week. However, plaintiff testified that, in practice, the distribution of leads was not always equitable. For example, if an Associate was away from the office or otherwise unavailable when the time came for a lead to be assigned to her, she would be skipped, and the receptionist would not always go back and assign leads to that Associate when she became available. Additionally, even if an Associate was present, her name might not be placed on the list on any given day or week if the Director of Admissions thought she was underperforming. It is undisputed, though, that whenever the receptionist ...