United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division
DR. SHARRON HERRON-WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
ALABAMA STATE UNIVERSITY, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
KEITH WATKINS CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
the court is Defendant Alabama State University's motion
for summary judgment on each of Plaintiff Sharron
Herron-Williams's claims alleging employment
discrimination and retaliation. (Doc. # 29.) The parties have
fully briefed the motion and submitted evidence in support of
their respective positions. (Docs. # 29, 42, 47, 48.)
parties generally agree on what happened. They agree that
Plaintiff-a black woman-was a tenured professor for Defendant
from 2008 until she accepted a position at another university
sometime after initiating this action. They agree that she
was assigned to supervise Defendant's Office of Minority
and International Affairs (OMIA) in February of 2014, that
she did not receive the authorization or equipment she
requested while she supervised OMIA, and that she was
relieved of those supervisory duties in September of 2014.
They agree that she served as Defendant's faculty
athletic representative (FAR) from 2009 until her last FAR
contract expired on September 30, 2014. They agree that
Plaintiff's salary was reduced in October of 2015.
although the parties agree as to the “what” at
issue, they disagree as to the “why.” And because
Plaintiff brings claims under the nondiscrimination and
anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights
Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17, the
“why” is the heart of this action.
offers three answers to the “why” questions: (1)
race and/or gender discrimination; (2) retaliation for an
email Plaintiff sent to Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd- Defendant's
president at that time-on August 6, 2014, in which Plaintiff
protested what she perceived to be race and/or gender
discrimination; and/or (3) retaliation for filing a charge
with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Consequently, in six counts in her Amended Complaint (Doc. #
22), Plaintiff contends that the actions taken by Defendant
which she now challenges-denying her the authorization and
equipment she requested while supervising OMIA, relieving
Plaintiff of her OMIA duties, not renewing her FAR contract,
and reducing her salary-violated Title VII.
offers more innocuous explanations for its actions. According
to Defendant, Plaintiff's requests for equipment while
she supervised OMIA were denied because additional equipment
was unnecessary. She was denied the authorization she
requested because Defendant did not want to give that
authority to an interim supervisor and it was not really
necessary. She was eventually relieved of her OMIA duties to
accelerate the process of finding a permanent supervisor for
OMIA. Her one-year FAR contract expired on its own terms on
September 30, 2014, and Defendant's president did not
renew Plaintiff because she preferred to pick her own FAR.
And Plaintiff's pay was reduced to that of a tenured
professor because she was no longer serving Defendant as
anything other than a tenured professor.
has since conceded that Defendant is entitled to summary
judgment on her claims that her removal from the FAR position
was the result of illegal discrimination, which are in Count
Four of her Amended Complaint. (Doc. # 47, at 35.)
Defendant's motion for summary judgment is thus due to be
granted with respect to Count Four.
other claims meet a similar fate because there is no genuine
dispute of material fact for trial. Consequently,
Defendant's motion for summary judgment (Doc. # 29) is
due to be granted.
JURISDICTION AND VENUE
court exercises subject-matter jurisdiction over this action
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343. The parties do
not contest personal jurisdiction or venue.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
succeed on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party
must demonstrate “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). The court
views the evidence, and all reasonable inferences drawn from
it, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.
Jean-Baptiste v. Gutierrez, 627 F.3d 816, 820 (11th
party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial
responsibility of informing the district court of the basis
for its motion . . . .” Celotex Corp. v.
Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). This responsibility
includes identifying the portions of the record illustrating
the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact.
Id. Alternatively, a movant who does not have a
trial burden of production can assert, without citing the
record, that the nonmoving party “cannot produce
admissible evidence to support” a material fact.
movant meets its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving
party to establish-with evidence beyond the pleadings-that a
genuine dispute material to each of its claims for relief
exists. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324. A genuine
dispute of material fact exists “if the nonmoving party
has produced evidence such that a reasonable factfinder could
return a verdict in its favor.” Waddell v. Valley
Forge Dental Assocs., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir.
Plaintiff's time working for Defendant was uneventful.
Plaintiff began working for Defendant in August of 2003 as an
associate professor. She was granted tenure in 2008 and
achieved the rank of full professor in 2009. She went on to
serve as interim dean for the College of Liberal Arts and
Social Sciences and interim associate provost in the Office
of Academic Affairs. For each of those interim positions,
Plaintiff received a pay stipend. Plaintiff left Defendant
for a position at another university in early 2017.
course, Plaintiff's time working for Defendant was not
entirely without conflict. The year 2014 was particularly
eventful, largely because of Plaintiff's tumultuous time
supervising OMIA but also because her time as Defendant's
FAR came to an end. In October of the following year, she
received a substantial pay cut. Because these events are the
focus of Plaintiff's claims, they are each discussed in
applicability of Title VII to the claims in this case is not
questioned, as the parties agree that Defendant is an
employer covered by Title VII (Doc. # 22, ¶ 4, at 2;
Doc. # 23, ¶ 4, at 1) and that Plaintiff was an employee
of Defendant at all relevant times under Title VII (Doc. #
22, ¶ 4, at 2; Doc. # 23, ¶ 4, at 1).
Plaintiff's Tumultuous Time Supervising
supervised OMIA from February of 2014 until the following
September. She faced many difficulties during that time, most
prominently a lack of authorization and equipment that
hampered OMIA's operations. Those difficulties eventually
led Plaintiff to send an email to Defendant's
then-president- Dr. Boyd-on August 6, 2014, in which she
complained about the various problems she had encountered
during her time supervising OMIA and suggested that she was
the victim of unlawful discrimination. A month after sending
that email, Plaintiff was relieved of her OMIA duties.
time supervising OMIA-especially the end of her supervisory
duties-is the focus of this action. Consequently, it merits
considerably more discussion than the rest of her time
working for Defendant.
Plaintiff's Reassignment to OMIA
February 17, 2014, Dr. Leon Wilson-a black male who at the
time was the provost for Defendant-sent Plaintiff a
memorandum informing her that her time as interim associate
provost had come to an end and that her primary appointment
would be that of professor. The memo also informed Plaintiff
that she would “be assigned special duties with
Academic Affairs” and that she would “continue
the supervision of” OMIA. (Doc. # 29-3, at 28.) Dr.
Wilson sent a superseding memo on February 28, 2014, that
corrected Plaintiff's professorial appointment but was
otherwise the same as the February 17, 2014 memo. (Doc. #
29-3, at 30.) Officially, Plaintiff did not receive
additional compensation for this role (Doc. # 29-4, at 35;
Doc. # 29-5, at 29), but Dr. Wilson gave her this role to
justify allowing her to remain at the salary she received
while she served as interim associate provost (Doc. # 29-5,
Plaintiff's Requests for Authorization
her assignment to supervise OMIA, Plaintiff's primary
task was to oversee the processing and submission of forms
that Defendant's international students are required to
submit to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In order
to complete this task, Plaintiff believed that she needed to
receive authorization from Dr. Boyd in the form of an
appointment designating her as Defendant's principal
designated school official (PDSO) per Homeland Security
regulations. Despite making multiple requests (Doc. # 29-4,
at 20, 72; Doc. # 29-3, at 40-42; Doc. # 46-1, at 12-18),
Plaintiff never received the PDSO designation (Doc. # 29-4,
at 72). The reason why is disputed.
believes discrimination is to blame, specifically race and/or
gender discrimination. The only clear basis for her
allegations of race and/or gender discrimination is that the
individual who was in charge of OMIA before Plaintiff was
assigned to supervise it-Dr. Steven Havron-is a white male.
(Doc. # 29-4, at 30.) Dr. Havron had received the PDSO
designation from one of Defendant's presidents who
preceded Dr. Boyd. (See Doc. # 29-4, at 19, 41, 72;
Doc. # 29-5, at 44-45; Doc. # 29-6, at 5.) When Dr. Havron
retired, Plaintiff took over as the supervisor for OMIA.
Sometime after Plaintiff began supervising OMIA but before
she sent her August 6, 2014 email to Dr. Boyd, Dr. Wilson
asked Dr. Havron to come out of retirement to once again take
charge of OMIA, but Dr. Havron declined. Plaintiff's
August 6, 2014 email seems to allege that Dr. Wilson's
desire to bring Dr. Havron back was the reason Plaintiff did
not receive the PDSO designation, although her email does not
reference Dr. Havron's race or gender. (Doc. # 29-3, at
does not offer quite as clear of a reason why Plaintiff never
received the PDSO designation. Dr. Wilson and Dr. Charles
Smith-who was Defendant's Vice President of Student
Affairs at the time-said they each brought the issue to Dr.
Boyd's attention and told her that it was important that
she give Plaintiff the PDSO designation. (Doc. # 29-5, at 48;
Doc. # 29-6, at 5-6.) Dr. Smith also placed some of the blame
on Dr. Wilson (Doc. # 29-6, at 12-13), but Dr. Wilson
suggested that Dr. Boyd alone was to blame (Doc. # 29-5, at
25, 32, 43-44, 48), in part because Dr. Boyd allegedly told
him she did not want to give the PDSO designation to
Plaintiff because she was supervising OMIA on an interim
basis (Doc. # 29-5, at 25). Dr. Boyd, for her part, appeared
to be under the impression that someone still had the
requisite authority to oversee OMIA because some of
OMIA's work was getting done. She also thought that
giving Plaintiff the PDSO designation was a matter for Dr.
Wilson and/or Dr. Smith to handle. (Doc. # 46-1, at 14-16.)
She further suggests that the PDSO designation forms may have
gotten lost in the shuffle of her other duties as president.
(Doc. # 46-1, at 16.)
whatever the reason, Dr. Boyd did not give Plaintiff the PDSO
designation. Plaintiff claims this severely hindered
OMIA's operations during her time supervising OMIA. (Doc.
# 29-4, at 21-22.) Although Dr. Boyd might dispute this
causal effect (Doc. # 46-1, at 14, 16), the parties seem to
agree that OMIA was not functioning properly while it was
under Plaintiff's supervision (Doc. # 29-4, at 21-22,
24-25, 72; Doc. # 29-5, at 24, 31; Doc. # 46-1, at 11). In
fact, much of OMIA's work had to be done by individuals
in other offices-namely, Nicole Miller (a black female who
worked for Defendant's Office of Admissions) and
Georgette Varner (a black female who worked in
Defendant's School of Graduate Studies)- who had received
a lesser level of authorization than the PDSO designation.
(Doc. # 29-4, at 22, 24-25, 66-67; Doc. # 29-7, at 15.)
Plaintiff's Requests for Equipment
Plaintiff's time supervising OMIA, Defendant provided the
same equipment to OMIA as it had during Dr. Havron's
tenure. (Doc. # 29-4, at 19; Doc. # 29-5, at 27.) That
equipment included two outdated computers, but did not
include a printer. (Doc. # 29-4, at 15, 19; Doc. # 29-3, at
37.) Dr. Havron had brought a printer he owned to OMIA while
he supervised the office, and he apparently took his printer
with him when he retired. Plaintiff requested additional
equipment for the office, but Dr. Wilson denied the request
after initially approving it because he thought OMIA did not
need additional equipment. (Doc. # 29-5, at 27.) Plaintiff
continued to request additional equipment, but her subsequent
requests were denied. (Doc. # 29-4, at 15; Doc. # 29-3, at
37-38.) The limited equipment available to OMIA while it was
under Plaintiff's supervision further hindered the
office's operations. (See Doc. # 29-4, at 15;
Doc. # 29-3, at 37-38.)
Plaintiff's August 6, 2014 Email to Dr.
apparently reached her breaking point on August 6, 2014. On
that date, Plaintiff sent an email to Dr. Boyd complaining
about the above-described struggles she had faced in her time
supervising OMIA and demanding some sort of remedial action
from Dr. Boyd. (Doc. # 29-3, at 40-42.) Many of
Plaintiff's complaints focused on Dr. Wilson. Her litany
of accusations against him included: undercutting
Plaintiff's authority by changing his mind about giving
OMIA better equipment; trying to lure Dr. Havron out of
retirement to replace Plaintiff behind Plaintiff's back;
holding up the PDSO designation process; soliciting
applications for Plaintiff's job without any notice to
Plaintiff; and otherwise interfering with OMIA. (Doc. # 29-3,
at 40-42.) Dr. Wilson disputed most of these allegations-or
at least disputed that there were any illicit motivations
behind his actions. (E.g., Doc. # 29-5, at 25, 27,
33, 38, 48.)
particular relevance here, Plaintiff offered her opinion on
the reasons behind the actions and circumstances about which
she complained. In the eleventh paragraph of her email, she
wrote: “In my case, the intolerable actions of Dr.
Wilson and a few other administrators can only be based on
gender, age, or educational background if not race and
ethnicity.” (Doc. # 29-3, at 40-42.) Plaintiff offered
no support for this conclusion in her email, and she never
filed a complaint with Defendant's human resources
department regarding her claims of discrimination (Doc. #
29-4, at 71).
Boyd claims she does not remember receiving Plaintiff's
email (Doc. # 46-1, at 17), but Dr. Wilson said Dr. Boyd
showed him the email without offering an opinion on it (Doc.
# 29-5, at 37).
The End of Plaintiff's OMIA Duties
September 11, 2014-five weeks after Plaintiff sent Dr. Boyd
the email discussed in the previous subsection-Dr. Wilson
sent Plaintiff a memorandum informing her that her time
supervising OMIA had come to an end and that she was
“reassigned to [her] primary assignment” as a
professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.
(Doc. # 29-3, at 44.) The memorandum did not offer any
explanation for the change. There is some dispute as to
whether Plaintiff was given a new office space after she
vacated her OMIA office-Plaintiff claims she was not (Doc. #
29-4, at 34), but Dr. Wilson claims she was offered an office
and rejected it (Doc. # 29-5, at 22).
former position supervising OMIA remained vacant until
December of 2015 when Dr. Boyd appointed Carol Williams (a
black female) to replace Plaintiff on an interim basis. (Doc.
# 29-7, at 13-14.) Carol Williams did not receive the PDSO
designation (Doc. # 29-7, at 15), and OMIA still had the same
equipment during her time with the office as it did when Dr.
Havron supervised the office, although Ms. Williams did take
her computer and printer with her (Doc. # 29-7, at 18). The
position was permanently filled in 2017, when Dr. Wilson-who
was Defendant's interim president at the time-appointed
Dr. Linwood Whitten (a black male) to the position.
Plaintiff's Seemingly Uneventful Time as
was appointed to the FAR position in 2009 by Dr. William
Harris, Defendant's president at the time. (Doc. # 29-4,
at 11-12.) She remained in that position until her last FAR
contract expired on September 30, 2014-less than two months
after Plaintiff's August 6, 2014 email to Dr. Boyd. (Doc.
# 29-4, at 11-12; Doc. # 29-3, at 75-83.) Initially,
Plaintiff did not realize her final FAR contract had expired.
She continued to perform the duties of the FAR without pay
until November of 2014, when she finally learned that her
contract had expired and that she would no longer receive the
corresponding pay stipend. (See Doc. # 29-4, at 12,
42; Doc. # 46-1, at 50-52.)
Boyd did not appoint a replacement for Plaintiff until March
of 2015, when she appointed Dr. Sara Kiser (a white female)
to the position. (Doc. # 46-3, at 2.) Two minority candidates
(black females) were considered for the FAR position before
it was offered to Dr. Kiser, but they did not receive the
requisite permission from the deans of their respective
colleges to accept the position and thus could not accept an
appointment to the position. (Doc. # 29-3, at 87-88.) Dr.
Kiser continues to serve as Defendant's FAR.
Plaintiff's Unexpected (but Possibly Overdue) Pay
September 10, 2015-over a year after Plaintiff had been
relieved of her OMIA duties-Plaintiff received a memo from
Dr. Wilson informing her that her salary “reverted back
to that of a Professor” as of October 1, 2015. (Doc. #
29-3, at 46.) Plaintiff claims that was a pay cut of about
$20, 000 a year. (Doc. # 29-4, at 44; see Doc. #
29-3, at 34-35.) This pay cut came six months after Plaintiff
filed her first (and subsequently amended) charge of
discrimination with the EEOC. (Doc. # 46-6; Doc. # 29-3, at
91-92; Doc. # 29-3, at 46; Doc. # 29-4, at 44; Doc. # 46-1,
at 24.) Dr. Wilson and Dr. Boyd attribute the pay cut to the
elimination of the stipend Plaintiff received for serving as
interim associate provost. (Doc. # 29-3, at 46; Doc. # 29-5,
at 57; Doc. # 46-1, at 24.) They each asserted that the pay
cut had nothing to do with the end of Plaintiff's OMIA
duties because Plaintiff did not receive extra compensation
for those duties. (Doc. # 29-5, at 29; Doc. # 46-1, at 24.)
claims that the pay cut broke from Defendant's usual
practice of allowing professors to keep any additional salary
from administrative positions even after their service in
those positions ended. But according to Dr. Wilson, that
practice was the reason Plaintiff's pay was not cut
immediately upon the end of her time as interim associate
provost. (Doc. # 29-3, at 25; Doc. # 29-5, at 29.) It was
also the reason he assigned her to supervise OMIA. (Doc. #
29-5, at 29.) But after Plaintiff was relieved of her OMIA
duties, Dr. Wilson “could not justify” allowing
her to remain at the salary she received as interim associate
provost. (Doc. # 29-5, at 52.)
Plaintiff's First EEOC Charge
filed her first EEOC charge on March 9, 2015 (Doc. # 46-6)
and amended it the next day (Doc. # 29-3, at 91-92). On the
section of the form labeled “CAUSE OF DISCRIMINATION
BASED ON, ” Plaintiff checked “SEX, ”
“RETALIATION, ” and “AGE, ” but not
“RACE.” (Doc. #29-3, at 91.) However, she clearly
alleged racial discrimination with regard to her time
supervising OMIA in the declaration attached to her amended
charge. (Doc. # ...