Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Herron-Williams v. Alabama State University

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

February 6, 2018




         Before 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.)

         The 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)[1] 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.

         But 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         Defendant 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff's 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.


         The 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.


         To 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 Cir. 2010).

         “[A] 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. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(B).

         If the 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. 2001).

         III. FACTS

         Most of 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.

         Of 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 detail below.

         The 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).

         A. Plaintiff's Tumultuous Time Supervising OMIA

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff's 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.

         1. Plaintiff's Reassignment to OMIA

         On 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, at 29).

         2. Plaintiff's Requests for Authorization

         During 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.

         Plaintiff 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 41.)

         Defendant 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.)

         But 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.)

         3. Plaintiff's Requests for Equipment

         Throughout 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.)

         4. Plaintiff's August 6, 2014 Email to Dr. Boyd

         Plaintiff 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.)

         Of 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).

         Dr. 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).

         5. The End of Plaintiff's OMIA Duties

         On 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).

         Plaintiff's 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.

         B. Plaintiff's Seemingly Uneventful Time as FAR

         Plaintiff 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.)

         Dr. 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.

         C. Plaintiff's Unexpected (but Possibly Overdue) Pay Cut

         On 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.)

         Plaintiff 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.)


         A. Plaintiff's First EEOC Charge

         Plaintiff 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. # ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.