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Mance v. Board of Trustees of University of West Alabama

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

March 23, 2018

ANGELIA MANCE, Plaintiff,
v.
THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WEST ALABAMA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN E. OTT CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         In her now-governing amended complaint, Plaintiff Angelia Mance claims that, while employed by the University of West Alabama, she was subjected to disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794. (Doc.[1] 26). The cause now comes to be heard on a motion for summary judgment filed by the Defendant, the University of West Alabama's Board of Trustees (“Board”). (Doc. 52). Upon consideration, the court[2] concludes that the Board's motion is due to be granted.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS

         Pursuant to Rule 56, Fed. R. Civ. P., a party may move for summary judgment on all or some of the claims asserted against it. Under that rule, the “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.” Rule 56(a), Fed.R.Civ.P. The party moving for summary judgment “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, ” relying on submissions “which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); see also Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144 (1970); Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). Once the moving party has met that burden, the nonmoving party must “go beyond the pleadings” and show that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324.

         Both the party “asserting that a fact cannot be, ” and a party asserting that a fact is genuinely disputed, must support their assertions by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, ” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Rule 56(c)(1)(A), (B), Fed.R.Civ.P. In its review of the record, a court must credit the evidence of the non-movant and draw all justifiable inferences in the non-movant's favor. Stewart v. Booker T. Washington Ins., 232 F.3d 844, 848 (11th Cir. 2000). At summary judgment, “the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         II. BACKGROUND[3]

         In 2007, Mance was hired by Alabama Southern Community College (“ASCC”) to serve as the Director of the Demopolis Higher Education Center (“DHEC”). The DHEC was formed pursuant to an educational partnership agreement between the City of Demopolis, Alabama (the “City”) and local colleges and universities to promote economic development, job skills training, and dual enrollment for the City's residents. Under that arrangement, the DHEC was funded primarily by the City, and it owned the classroom and office building in Demopolis that served as the DHEC facility. On the college side, at the time of Mance's hire, ASCC was the managing partner of the DHEC, providing the personnel who worked at the DHEC facility and carried out the programs.

         In 2009, the University of West Alabama (“UWA”) entered into a five-year agreement with the City to replace ASCC as the managing partner of the DHEC. Under that agreement, UWA would essentially assume ASCC's functions, providing personnel and management of all DHEC programs. The City, in turn, would lease the DHEC facility to UWA for one dollar per year and furnish $92, 500 in annual funding to help finance the DHEC's operations, including staff salaries.

         On May 15, 2009, Mance was hired away from ASCC to work for UWA, where she initially served in the position of Director for the Center for Business and Economic Services (“CBES”), with the understanding that, once UWA assumed its duties as DHEC's managing partner, she would transition back to DHEC Director. In late 2009, Mance was involved in an accident that later resulted in the amputation of her right leg, leaving her wheelchair-dependent. After taking paid medical leave, she returned to work in March 2010. On April 1, 2010, she took her former position as DHEC Director, as planned, and she continued to work in that same capacity over the next few years, into 2014. During that period, Mance was also given two additional titles: Associate Director of the CBES and Special Projects Coordinator for the Suttles Entrepreneurial Center. Neither title, however, carried any pay or benefits independent of what Mance received as DHEC Director. (See Doc. 52-6, Declaration of Ken Tucker (“Tucker Decl.”) ¶ 5; Doc. 52-5 at 2-53, Deposition of Angelia Mance (“Mance Dep.”) at 91, 107-08; Doc. 52-3 at 2-10, Deposition of Ken Tucker (“Tucker Dep.”) at 17; Doc. 52-5 at 321).

         By its terms, the City's five-year agreement with UWA regarding the DHEC was to expire on September 30, 2014. As that date approached, there were doubts about whether the City would continue to fund its part of the DHEC budget. Even so, the City's funding for the DHEC was paid to UWA on a quarterly basis, with a final payment due on October 1, 2014, which would allow the DHEC to continue operating through the end of the semester in December 2014. On October 22, 2014, the City formally notified UWA that it would not renew its funding for the DHEC. UWA then decided to close the DHEC and lay off all five members of the DHEC staff, including Mance, effective at the end of the semester in December 2014. On November 5, 2014, Edwards met with Mance and informed her that her DHEC Director position was being eliminated and that UWA would be vacating the DHEC facility as of December 15, 2014. While none of the other four DHEC employees were retained in any capacity, UWA allowed Mance to continue teaching online courses as an adjunct professor, although she voluntarily ceased doing so in November 2014 due to having foot surgery. (Doc. 52-5 at 2-52 (“Mance Dep.”) at 141).

         At 10:53 a.m., on December 3, 2014, Mance emailed UWA President Blackwell “requesting a reasonable accommodation [of her disability] in the form of re-assignment and/or placement into a different position” because she was being removed from her “primary and only paying position.” (Doc. 52-5 at 321). Asking UWA to engage in a “good faith interaction” to determine whether she could be so “accommodated, ” Mance identified two “positions/duties” that she “believe[d]” were or soon would become available, namely the unpaid titles she had held along with her paid position as DHEC Director: (1) Associate Director of the CBES and (2) Special Projects Coordinator for the Suttles Institute. (Id.) There is no evidence in the record, however, that UWA ever recognized either title as a discrete, paid position, nor that UWA's workforce was expanded to cover duties associated with either title after UWA decided to eliminate the five DHEC positions. Indeed, the Board has proffered evidence that, months before the DHEC closed, UWA had already merged the Suttles Institute into the CBES to promote efficiency and extend the life of the Institute, which was funded by a donation. (Tucker Decl. ¶ 5). In the wake of that merger, CBES Director Veronica Triplett, an existing UWA employee hired before Mance, had assumed additional duties associated with the Suttles Institute, none of which were related to the DHEC. (Id. ¶ 6). And unlike Mance, Triplett worked on UWA's Livingston campus, and her salary was not dependent on funding from the City. (Id.) Finally, the Board has pointed to evidence that, because of budget constraints, UWA was not hiring as of December 2014 and had even been forced throughout that year to remove multiple postings for open faculty positions. (Id. ¶ 7).

         Also on December 3, 2014, at 2:52 p.m., Mance sent an email to Edwards, advising that, given that she had less than two weeks left on the job and that “the state of [her] health [had] worsened, ” she was going to be applying for benefits under her employee long-term disability insurance policy. (Doc. 52-5 at 323). To that end, Mance requested that Edwards complete an attached statement form on behalf of UWA as her employer. (Id. at 323; see also Id. at 324-27). Edwards acknowledged Mance's email and indicated he would help. The insurer subsequently approved Mance for disability benefits under the policy.

         On or about December 22, 2014, Mance also applied for disability benefits with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”), citing the amputation of her right leg, lymphedema, diabetes, and lupus as the conditions that limited her ability to work. (Doc. 52-5 at 288, 304). In that application, Mance claimed that she had become disabled as of December 15, 2014, the day the DHEC closed. (Id.) In April 2015, the SSA notified Mance that it had approved her application for disability benefits based on her alleged onset date. (Doc. 52-5 at 297).

         Mance, through retained counsel, filed this action in June 2016. (Doc. 1). She filed her latest amended complaint on October 14, 2016, asserting claims only against the Board, alleging unlawful disability discrimination and unlawful retaliation under § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794. (Doc. 26). On June 5, 2017, the Board filed a summary judgment (Doc. 52), with an accompanying evidentiary submission. (Doc. 52-2 through ...


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