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Ghioroaie-Panait v. Rolle

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

February 13, 2018

HENRY ROLLE, et al., Defendants.



         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), this case was referred to the United States Magistrate Judge for review and submission of a report with recommended findings of fact and conclusions of law. Doc. 18. Plaintiff Adrian Ghioroaie-Panait (“Ghioroaie”) filed this lawsuit on October 16, 2017, alleging discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin during the course of his employment as an assistant track and field coach at Auburn University (“Auburn”). Doc. 1. Now before the court is Auburn's motion to dismiss.[1] Doc. 27. After careful consideration of the parties' submissions and the applicable law, the undersigned recommends that the motion to dismiss be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.


         The court has subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims in this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3). The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue, and the court finds adequate allegations to support both.


         The facts alleged in the amended complaint are as follows. Ghioroaie is a 57-year-old resident of Ohio who was employed by Auburn as an assistant track and field coach from 2014 to 2016. Doc. 21 at 2-3. Ghioroaie is a white man of Romanian descent and nationality. Doc. 21 at 2. At Auburn, Ghioroaie coached men's jumps--including the triple jump, high jump, and long jump--along with women's multi-events. Doc. 21 at 3. During his tenure at Auburn, Ghioroaie sought to become a lawful permanent resident of the United States. Doc. 21 at 4. In May 2015, Auburn sponsored his green card application, which included a letter from then-Athletics Director Jay Jacobs recognizing Ghioroaie “as an exceptional coach in good standing with the University.” Doc. 21 at 4.

         Ghioroaie's tenure at Auburn, however, was by marred by mistreatment from other coaches. Specifically, in October 2015, Ghioroaie was confronted during a coaches' meeting by fellow assistant coach Henry Rolle, a black man originally from the Bahamas. Doc. 21 at 4. Rolle threatened Ghioroaie, stating that he would “take care” of him and “destroy” his career before grabbing Ghioroaie's neck with both hands and squeezing with enough force to leave visible marks. Doc. 21 at 4. Rolle then grabbed a statue and began to swing it at Ghioroaie's head. Doc. 21 at 5. Ghioroaie attempted to record the incident with his cell phone, but head coach Ralph Spry, a black man, took the phone out of his hand. Doc. 21 at 5. This incident resulted in criminal charges, and Rolle eventually pled guilty to harassment after several witnesses testified that he threatened and physically attacked Ghioroaie. Doc. 21 at 5. Auburn placed Rolle on administrative leave for two weeks following the incident. Doc. 21 at 5.

         Spry, who described Rolle as being “like his own son and right-hand man, ” protected Rolle and tried to convince Ghioroaie not to file a complaint with Auburn's Human Resources Department or Athletics Department. Doc. 21 at 5-7. According to Ghioroaie, Spry then called all of the track and field coaches into his office and tried to convince them that Rolle's behavior was normal. Doc. 21 at 5. Later, during their investigation into the incident, members of Auburn's Athletics Department encouraged Ghioroaie to report that he felt safe going to work despite the fact that they knew he did not. Doc. 21 at 6. However, because Ghioroaie was dependent upon Auburn for his pending green card application and “felt pressured to drop the matter by the Auburn administration, ” he continued to report to work and attempted to avoid Rolle. Doc. 21 at 6. Even after the original incident, Rolle harassed Ghioroaie, telling him that he would destroy his career. Doc. 21 at 6-7. During one incident in February 2016, after Ghioroaie told Rolle that Rolle did not have the authority to command Ghioroaie to move to a different area of the track, Rolle responded that “where he came from, people get their ‘head chopped off' for talking, ” that he “know[s] people, ” and that he “will have the last laugh, guaranteed.” Doc. 21 at 6-7.

         Because of Rolle's continued harassment and because Ghioroaie felt that Spry would not remedy the situation, Ghioroaie filed a complaint with Bernard Hill of Auburn's Human Resources Department on March 1, 2016. Doc. 21 at 7. In the complaint, Ghioroaie cited the verbal abuse from Rolle and stated that he should not be mistreated because of his “nationality, skin, accent and other differences.” Doc. 21 at 7. After the written complaint, Hill told Ghioroaie that “it did not matter whose fault the situation between Ghioroaie and Rolle was, ” and Spry told Ghioroaie to “stop going after” Rolle. Doc. 21 at 7. As a solution, the Human Resources Department proposed only that Ghioroaie avoid Rolle and refrain from speaking to him. Doc. 21 at 7.

         Shortly after he filed the complaint with human resources, Ghioroaie was informed that Spry would be formally evaluating his work performance. This occurred more than two years after he was hired in January 2014, and was the first evaluation during his tenure at Auburn. Doc. 21 at 8. Eventually, on May 1, Spry notified Ghioroaie that Auburn would not renew his employment contract and asked him to return his office keys, employee identification card, and cell phone. Doc. 21 at 8. Spry told Ghioroaie that his nonrenewal was without cause. Doc. 21 at 8. Spry also asked Ghioroaie whether he remembered complaining to the university about Rolle and Spry, which Ghioroaie interpreted to be an indication of the true basis for Auburn's decision not to renew his contract. Doc. 21 at 8. After May 1, Ghioroaie was forbidden from entering Auburn's track and field facilities and was told to avoid the campus. Doc. 21 at 8. Simultaneously, Auburn released assistant coach Knut Hjeltnes (of unknown race and nationality) from his employment, but informed Hjeltnes that he would be permitted to complete the remainder of the season with his event group. Doc. 21 at 8-9. Ghioroaie was not allowed to complete the season, which has negatively impacted his prospects for future employment. Doc. 21 at 9. He was replaced by Greg Stringer, a black man. Doc. 21 at 9. While Rolle, Hjeltnes, and Ghioroaie coached different events, they had the same duties and responsibilities as assistant coaches and all reported to Spry. Doc. 21 at 9.

         Under Ghioroaie's watch, Auburn's track and field team experienced “tremendous success, ” with Ghioroaie's athletes accounting for 21 of the men's team's 24 total National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) points[2] at the Southeastern Conference's indoor track championship in 2016. Doc. 21 at 3. Even though the team had five other coaches, Ghioroaie's athletes accounted for 26.5 of the team's 47.5 total NCAA points during his time at Auburn, and at least two of his athletes earned Auburn's most valuable player awards. Doc. 21 at 4.

         Ghioroaie filed a Charge of Discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on October 26, 2016. Doc. 1-1. The EEOC could not conclusively determine whether Ghioroaie's claim had merit, and it issued a “Dismissal and Notice of Rights, ” commonly known as a right-to-sue letter, on July 18, 2017. Doc. 1-2. Ghioroaie then filed suit on October 16, 2017 against Rolle and Auburn's Board of Trustees. Doc. 1. After Rolle and the Board filed motions to dismiss, Ghioroaie filed an amended complaint on December 11, 2017, naming Auburn, Rolle, and Spry as defendants. See Docs. 10, 11 & 22. Auburn then filed its reply brief in support of the Board's motion to dismiss (Doc. 27), which the court construes as a motion to dismiss on behalf of Auburn.


         In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court must “take the factual allegations in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Pielage v. McConnell, 516 F.3d 1282, 1284 (11th Cir. 2008). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is “plausible on its face” if “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The complaint “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Factual ...

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