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Nielsen v. Talladega College

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

March 15, 2018

PENNY NIELSEN, Plaintiff,
v.
TALLADEGA COLLEGE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Presently pending is the motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant Talladega College. (Doc. 23). Plaintiff Penny Nielson has responded, and Defendant has replied. (Docs. 30, 31). Accordingly, this matter is fully briefed and is ripe for adjudication. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted in its entirety.

         I. FACTS

         Plaintiff, who has "an earned doctorate in curriculum and instruction - reading, " was a faculty member at numerous colleges and universities between 1971 and 2013. (Doc. 30-1 at 1-2). Talladega College is a private liberal arts college and is the "oldest fully-accredited historically black private college in the state of Alabama." (Doc. 24 at 2-3). During the time period relevant to this lawsuit: (1) Billy Hawkins was President; and (2) Lisa Long was the Provost and Vice-President of Academic Affairs. (Doc. 24 at 3).

         On April 3, 2013, Long recommended hiring Plaintiff as a Reading Specialist in the College's Elementary Education/Special Education Collaborative Program.[2] (Doc. 25-4 at 7; see Doc. 24 at 4). On April 5, Hawkins issued a letter of employment to Plaintiff, confirming her employment as a Reading Specialist for the end of the 2012-13 academic year, effective April 8, 2013, to May 13, 2013. (Doc. 25-4 at 9; see Doc. 24 at 4). Plaintiff worked full-time for the College during this five-week period. (Doc. 24 at 4). On May 1, 2013, Hawkins issued another letter confirming Plaintiff's employment as a Reading Specialist for the 2013-14 academic year, effective August 13, 2013, to May 14, 2014. (Doc. 25-4 at 11; see Doc. 24 at 4-5). Both employment letters noted Plaintiff's employment was "at will" and could be terminated at any time, without cause or notice, and at the sole discretion of Talladega College. (Doc. 25-4 at 9, 11).

         During the 2013-14 academic year, there were four faculty members in the Education Department: (1) Plaintiff; (2) Dionne Edison; (3) Lemanski Walker; and (4) Karen Petty. (Doc. 24 at 5). Edison was chair of the department and Plaintiff's immediate supervisor. (Doc. 24 at 6). Edison, Walker, and Petty are black; Plaintiff is white. (Id. at 1, 5). Petty was hired on November 1, 2013, but Plaintiff contends Petty did not teach any classes or do any other work in November or December 2013. (Doc. 30-1 at 4; see Doc. 24 at 5). Plaintiff contends Petty's hiring was improper because Plaintiff was scheduled to interview her prior to hiring; however, Petty was hired before the scheduled interview, which never took place. (Doc. 30-2 at 2). Plaintiff testified her education and experience was superior to that of her colleagues, including Edison. (Doc. 25-1 at 32). Plaintiff described Edison's and Petty's educational credentials as "pitiful" and noted she had vastly greater experience than Petty and Walker. (Id.). Plaintiff described her departmental colleagues variously as Talladega College's "black pet[s], " "little pets, " or "little black people." (Doc. 25-1 at 17, 34, 36).

         On September 17, 2013, Plaintiff reported in an email to Long that Edison had spoken to her inappropriately in the presence of students. (Doc. 25-1 at 44; see Doc. 24 at 7). The disturbance was triggered by a dispute regarding the deadline for students to register for fingerprinting (the "Fingerprint Confrontation"). (Doc. 25-1 at 44). Plaintiff's email complaint to Long does not include any reference to race, religion, or age. (Id.). Plaintiff reported Edison was loud and insulting and her behavior led students to drop Plaintiff's class. (Doc. 30-1 at 5).[3]

         On September 30, 2013, Plaintiff sent an email to Edison-with copies to Long and Walker-complaining about syllabi Edison had developed and required faculty to use (the "Syllabus Complaint"). (Doc. 24 at 7; Doc. 30-1 at 5).[4] In the email, Nielson states the syllabi are "not good, " disorganized, and contain confusing assignments. (Doc. 25-1 at 45). Plaintiff further noted Edison refused to answer her students' questions regarding the syllabi and assignments. (Id.). As with the Fingerprint Confrontation, the email regarding the Syllabus Complaint does not explicitly contend the syllabi or Edison's actions were in any way discriminatory. (Id.). Plaintiff testified she considered Edison's refusal to answer her students' questions to be racially discriminatory because she believes Edison would have answered questions from a black professor's students. (Id. at 15).

         The Education Department has a copier that can be used to scan and email documents to a list of programmed recipients. (Doc. 25-1at 13). Plaintiff testified Edison entered faculty members' names into the scanner; while Edison correctly entered the names of "all the blacks, " she misspelled Plaintiff's name. (Id. at 14). Edison testified she did not intentionally misspell Plaintiff's name. (Doc. 25-3 at 19-20). When Plaintiff brought the misspelling to Edison's attention, Edison refused to fix it; Edison invited Plaintiff to fix the misspelling herself but did not provide any instructions, explaining that she had quickly learned how to enter the names on the scanner. (Doc. 25-1at 13; see Doc. 25-3 at 20). Plaintiff complained to Long regarding this incident (the "Scanner Misspelling"). (Doc. 25-1 at 13). Plaintiff testified she thought Edison purposefully misspelled her name as a form of racial discrimination because Edison was "very ugly" and "treated the blacks totally differently." (Id.).

         Next, Plaintiff was disturbed by an incident in which Edison admitted to a student that Edison had Attention Deficit Disorder and did not take medication for the condition. (Doc. 25-1 at 17). Plaintiff complained to Long about the conversation and testified that Long took no action. (Id.). Plaintiff further testified that she considered this to be a "violation" (the "ADD Violation") because Long failed to "protect" Plaintiff. (Id.). Plaintiff does not explain her theory regarding what species of discriminatory animus motivated the ADD Violation, but she testified students were quitting the program because of Edison's non-medicated ADD. (Id.).

         During the Fall 2013 semester, Edison received free posters and booklets entitled "The Way to Happiness." (Doc. 25-3 at 11; see Doc. 24 at 8). Edison testified she thought the principles espoused in the materials were positive and she did not consider the information to be religious in nature. (Doc. 25-3 at 11).[5]Edison gave copies of the booklet to the Education Department faculty, including Plaintiff. (Id.; Doc. 25-1 at 20-21). Edison also gave the posters to another Talladega College employee who posted them in the student center, located in another campus building. (See Doc. 25-3 at 11; Doc. 25-1 at 21; Doc. 25-3 at 16). Plaintiff was upset by the materials, which were distributed by a group affiliated with the Church of Scientology. (Doc. 25-1 at 21). Edison testified that she is not a scientologist. (Doc. 25-3 at 18). Plaintiff never read the booklets because she didn't "want Scientology pushed down [her] throat." (Doc. 25-1 at 21). Approximately two or three weeks later, another employee told Edison that Plaintiff stated the materials were distributed by the Church of Scientology; the employee showed Edison the church's logo-a sunrise icon-on the materials. (Doc. 25-3 at 12; Doc. 30-1 at 17). Edison testified she subsequently approached Plaintiff, spoke to her about the matter, and then "left it alone." (Doc. 25-3 at 12). Meanwhile, Plaintiff testified that Edison was yelling during this confrontation and "berated" her for complaining about the materials. (Doc. 25-1 at 21). Plaintiff avers Edison continued distributing The Way to Happiness materials to students and that Long was aware of this. (Doc. 30-2 at 3). Plaintiff also testified she interpreted Edison's behavior as "bragging that those Scientology posters are still posted on Talladega College campus." (Doc. 25-1 at 21).

         On December 17, 2013, Plaintiff emailed Edison expressing concern with a portion of the curriculum for an educational psychology course to be taught during the following semester. (Doc. 25-1 at 45). Plaintiff took issue with the inclusion of an exercise called "Teaching Tolerance, " which was provided on the Southern Poverty Law Center's ("SPLC") website. (Id.). Plaintiff noted the exercise required students to register with the SPLC, which Plaintiff described as a group "actively promoting the gay agenda." (Id.). Plaintiff noted her opposition to utilizing Teaching Tolerance; her concern was based on "requiring students to register at this website." (Id.).

         Edison's December 19, 2013 response-on which Long was copied-began by quoting the College's non-discrimination policy, which prohibits discrimination on many bases, including sexual orientation, disability, or religion. (Doc. 25-1 at 45). Edison's response continued:

This term you have expressed deep concerns about the Church of Scientology, what people eat, individuals with disabilities and now sexual orientation. In each instance I could not find where the information provided or the individual involved was at odds with the mission of this institution, the State standards or Alabama law.

(Doc. 25-1 at 45). Edison also noted she had not received any complaints regarding use of SPLC materials during the previous ten years. (Id.). Edison also offered to print the exercise for Plaintiff, so she would not have to register with the SPLC, to the extent Plaintiff would be offended by directly accessing the SPLC materials; Edison extended the same offer regarding any students who had similar concerns. (Id.). The response also invited Plaintiff to propose other materials to substitute for Teaching Tolerance. (Id.). Edison's response concluded that she "appreciate[d Plaintiff's] willingness to share [her] concern." (Id.). Plaintiff and Edison subsequently met in Edison's office, where Edison accessed and performed the exercise with Plaintiff; Edison stated she was trying to be helpful since Plaintiff did not want to register on the SPLC website. (Doc. 25-3 at 19). Plaintiff considered this to be discriminatory and/or retaliatory. (Doc. 30-1 at 6; Doc. 30-2 at 3).

         Plaintiff also testified about a number of incidents to support claims for a hostile work environment. While Plaintiff has abandoned her hostile work environment claims, she contends the underlying facts support her claims for discrimination and retaliation regarding her nonrenewal. (Doc. 30-1 at 22 nn.8- 9). These incidents include that: (1) Edison would "talk over" her in meetings with Long (Doc. 25-1 at 29); (2) Edison sent email complaints to Long regarding Plaintiff (id.); (3) Edison told another employee she did not want to sit by Plaintiff at a departmental function (id. at 18); and (4) Long said she would have "to decide if she would let [Plaintiff] teach other people's children" (id. at 29). Plaintiff felt these incidents were racially and religiously discriminatory because Edison and Long are black and Plaintiff is white. (Doc. 25-1 at 18, 29). Plaintiff also testified that, during Walker's interview, Edison stated "she wanted a black male." (Doc. 25-1 at 30).[6] Plaintiff also testified students' files were stored in Walker's office; Plaintiff needed access to the files for advising purposes. (Id.). Plaintiff did not have a key to Walker's office, and Edison refused to move the files to another location. (Id.). Plaintiff considered this to be a form of racial discrimination. (Id.).

         As to religious discrimination, Plaintiff testified Edison knew she was a Seventh Day Adventist because Plaintiff told her sometime during the Spring of 2013. (Doc. 25-1 at 19). Edison responded by saying the Seventh Day Adventists she knew were vegetarians. (Id.). Edison testified she knew Plaintiff was a vegetarian because, during departmental functions where food was served, Plaintiff had said "meat defiles the body." (Doc. 25-3 at 12).[7]

         In December 2013, Edison wrote Long a letter recommending Plaintiff's employment not be renewed for the following academic year. (Doc. 25-2 at 12; Doc. 25-3 at 6-7). Edison testified Plaintiff was not the right "fit" for the Education Department. (Id. at 6). Edison testified she reached this conclusion based on her opinion that Plaintiff failed to follow direction and departmental standards, including: (1) refusal to make copies of a handbook for students; (2) failure to transport students to field experiences punctually; (3) tardiness; (4) an incident during which Plaintiff raised her voice to a student; and (5) failure to timely provide a math module to students (Doc. 25-3 at 7-11, 19). Plaintiff was never formally disciplined for these or any other incidents, and documentation of these incidents does not appear on the record. (See Doc. 30-1 at 14, 17). In response to Talladega College's proffered reasons for nonrenewal, Plaintiff disputes Edison's version of events regarding each of the incidents; Plaintiff contends she followed directions and departmental standards. (See Id. at 7).

         Long reviewed Edison's recommendation and, on February 25, 2014, wrote Hawkins a letter recommending Plaintiff's employment not be renewed for the 2014-15 academic year. (Doc. 25-4 at 13). Long testified she relied on Edison's recommendation, [8] her experiences attempting to resolve disputes involving Plaintiff, and negative feed-back in a student evaluation. (Doc. 25-2 at 40). Long testified Plaintiff demonstrated a lack of cooperation in adhering to syllabi and responding to supervisor directives. (Id.). In response, Plaintiff disputes that she failed to cooperate in any way or that any complaints about her were meritorious. (Doc. 30-1 at 8). In any event, on the same day he received Long's recommendation, Hawkins issued a letter to Plaintiff informing her that her employment would not be renewed for the following year. (Doc. 25-4 at 15). Long hand-delivered the nonrenewal letter to Plaintiff and told her to "have a nice day." (Doc. 30-1 at 21). Plaintiff felt Long's salutation "was racial." (Id.). The other Education Department faculty members were renewed for the following year.

         On April 4, 2014, Edison prepared a faculty evaluation for Plaintiff, assigning her 77 points out of 100 possible points. (Doc. 25-1 at 46). Edison's observations included: "[p]eriodic conflicts on student issues, " "limited attendance at institutional functions, " and "periodic conflicts completing other duties as designated." (Id.). Plaintiff responded in her observations that the evaluation was incomplete and opined that Long and Edison applied a higher standard to Plaintiff while showing "favoritism toward others." (Id.). Edison testified that a score of 77 on an evaluation would not render a professor unfit for employment or retention with Talladega College. (Doc. 25-3 at 21).

         Plaintiff submitted a formal complaint to the college regarding her nonrenewal. The complaint alleged racial and age discrimination and contended the timing of the nonrenewal violated Talladega College's policies. (Doc. 25-1 at 47-48). Regarding the timing of the nonrenewal, section 3.5.1 of the 2008 version of the Faculty Handbook includes the following provision entitled "Non-Reappointment:"

         Notice of non-reappointment should be given in writing in accordance with the following standards:

a. not later than March 1 of the first academic year of service, if the appointment expires at the end of the year . . .;
b. not later than December 15 of the second academic year of service, if the appointment expires at the end of that year . . . .

(Doc. 25-4 at 4).[9] The Faculty Handbook does not explicitly define what constitutes an "academic year of service." Plaintiff contends that, due to her employment from April to May 2013, the 2013-14 academic year was her second year of service. As Plaintiff would have it, the timing of any nonrenewal decision was governed by section 3.5.1.b. and required notice by December 15, 2013. Accordingly, Plaintiff argues her February 25, 2014 nonrenewal violated the Faculty Handbook. In response to Plaintiff's internal complaint, Talladega College determined Plaintiff's five weeks of employment from April to May 2013 did not constitute an academic year. (Doc. 25-1 at 48). Accordingly, the College found the nonrenewal was governed by, and complied with, section 3.5.1.a. (Id.).

         Talladega College did not hire a new Reading Specialist to replace Plaintiff for the 2014-15 academic year. (Doc. 24 at 15). Instead, Plaintiff's duties were assumed by the remaining Education Department faculty for the following year. (Doc. 30-1 at 16). Rebecca McKay, a 65-year-old white female filled the Reading Specialist position in September 2015 and, as of October 2016, was still employed in that capacity. (Doc. 24 at 15). Hawkins hired McKay on the recommendation of Edison and Long. (Doc. 24 at 15). In September 2014, Walker left the Education Department; he was replaced by Rebecca Robinson, a 61-year-old white female. (Doc. 24 at 15). Although Plaintiff acknowledged she had no knowledge regarding these subsequent hires, she testified to her belief that they were hired in order to cover-up her discriminatory termination. (Doc. 25-1 at 31). Plaintiff was hired in August 2016 for a temporary position as an Associate Professor of Education at Alabama A&M University. (Doc. 30-1 at 18).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party asking for summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56(e) requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and by his own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial. See Id. at 324.

         The substantive law identifies which facts are material and which are irrelevant. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the non-movant. See Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See id. at 249.

         III. ...


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