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Mitchell v. University of North Alabama

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

August 31, 2018

AUDREY DELORES MITCHELL, Plaintiff
v.
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH ALABAMA, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HERMAN N. JOHNSON, JR., UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This action proceeds before the court on defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. (Doc. 30). Defendant directs the motion to plaintiff's third amended complaint and the addition thereto. (Docs. 14 & 15). Plaintiff also filed additional allegations on August 3, 2018 (Doc. 47), which the court considers as part of her pleadings for purposes of this motion. For the reasons set out herein, the court GRANTS Defendant's motion.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A party may move for judgment on the pleadings only after the pleadings are closed. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). “Judgment on the pleadings is proper when no issues of material fact exist, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the substance of the pleadings and any judicially noticed facts.” Interline Brands, Inc. v. Chartis Specialty Ins. Co., 749 F.3d 962, 965 (11th Cir. 2014) (internal citation omitted). In determining whether a defendant is entitled to judgment on the pleadings, courts must “accept all the facts in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Id. The court treats the factual allegations in the non-moving party's pleadings as true, and takes as true those moving party allegations which do not conflict with the non-moving party's pleadings. If denied, the court deems the moving party's allegations false. Hawthorne v. Mac Adjustment, Inc., 140 F.3d 1367, 1370 (11th Cir. 1998). If comparison of the averments in the pleadings reveals a material dispute of fact, the court must deny judgment on the pleadings. Perez v. Wells Fargo N.A., 774 F.3d 1329, 1335 (11th Cir. 2014).

         In ruling on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, courts apply the same standards as applied to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. See Strategic Income Fund, LLC v. Spear, Leeds & Kellogg Corp., 305 F.3d 1293, 1295 n.8 (11th Cir. 2002). A court must grant the motion for judgment on the pleadings if, “on the basis of a dispositive issue of law, no construction of the factual allegations will support the cause of action.” Marshall Cnty. Bd. of Educ. v. Marshall Cnty. Gas Dist., 992 F.2d 1171, 1174 (11th Cir. 1993). Accordingly, to avoid the granting of judgment on the pleadings, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation omitted). “Dismissal is not appropriate unless the complaint lacks sufficient factual matter to state a facially plausible claim for relief that allows the court to draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct.” Jiles v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 413 Fed.Appx. 173, 174 (11th Cir. 2011) (per curiam) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556, 570 (2007)).

         FACTS

         Plaintiff Audrey Mitchell, an African-American female, formerly served as the University of North Alabama's (UNA) Director of Environmental Services and Housing Facilities Management.[1] UNA originally hired Mitchell as Coordinator of Administration in the Department of Housing and Residence Life on August 9, 1999. UNA named Mitchell Interim Director of Housing and Residence Life in 2004, choosing her over Kevin Jacques (Caucasian), who served as Associate Director of Residence Life. Jacques reported to Mitchell when she served as Interim Director. After UNA promoted Mitchell over him, Jacques undermined Mitchell and reported anything to their supervisor, Thomas Lovett (Caucasian), which Jacques believed may result in discipline for Mitchell. However, Lovett never verbally reprimanded her or disciplined her in writing.

         UNA hired David Shields (Caucasian) in 2006 as Vice President of Student Affairs. After his hire, Shields split the Housing and Residence Life Department into the Department of Housing and the Department of Residence Life. He named Jacques as Director of Residence Life and Mitchell as Director of Housing. Jacques reported alleged issues with Mitchell to Shields, and Mitchell had to respond to the allegations and refute them. Mitchell alleges Shields and Jacques schemed together to look for any possible mistake by Mitchell and treated Mitchell more harshly than her Caucasian counterparts.

         As an example of this alleged unequal treatment, Mitchell recounts an incident occurring during the Summer and Fall 2009 semesters. Mitchell submitted a purchase order to Cindy Conlon's office for replacement furniture for a student apartment; Conlon (Caucasian) approved the purchase order. After delivery of the furniture, Mitchell realized she omitted a dinette set. She submitted a purchase order for a dinette set. However, Conlon advised Mitchell she could not make the purchase without a bid and Conlon's previous approval for purchase of the other furniture constituted a mistake, against bidding law, and she should not have approved it. Conlon instructed Mitchell to request a disbursement from the Controller's office. Donna Tipps (Caucasian), the Controller at that time, returned the disbursement request to Mitchell and admonished her for submitting it. Mitchell emailed Tipps, with a copy to Conlon, advising Conlon directed her to submit the requisition to Tipps.

         In May or June 2010, Shields contacted Mitchell about reports he received that Mitchell authorized donating UNA furniture to students. Mitchell denied the allegations and asked Shields to speak to Assistant Director of Housing Jimmy Waddell (Caucasian). When Shields spoke with Waddell, he first informed Waddell he was not attempting to “get” anyone, in particular Mitchell. Waddell related to Shields that several Resident Assistants and two professional staff members approached him about obtaining old furniture which UNA was discarding; Waddell allowed them to retrieve some couches. Waddell also allowed an indigent family to obtain two couches. Waddell informed Shields he did so without Mitchell's knowledge or approval. Approximately a week later, Shields asked Waddell to document the incident. Waddell submitted written documentation on June 24, 2010. Waddell never received any reprimand or other disciplinary action for this incident, despite violating UNA policy. Mitchell believes Shields wanted Waddell to implicate Mitchell; when Waddell denied Mitchell had any knowledge of the incident, Shields abandoned the matter.

         On July 14, 2010, Mitchell met with Shields and Director of Human Resources and Affirmative Action Catherine White (Caucasian). At the meeting, Mitchell received an official reprimand letter and a $3, 000 salary reduction for that year for authorizing replacement of a student's stolen property rather than requiring the student to submit the request to the State Board of Adjusters. The complaint originated from Conlon.[2] Mitchell claims White advised her to file any appeal with UNA President William Cale (Caucasian). Cale and Shields previously worked at the same institution.

         Mitchell appealed the disciplinary action to Cale on July 18, 2010. She provided over 20 exhibits to her six-page appeal designed to demonstrate to Cale that Mitchell suffered discrimination and harassment, including the incident with Conlon and Tipps. Mitchell avers Conlon asked Cale to reprimand Mitchell for her actions regarding the furniture. Mitchell contends Shields and White knew Cale should not decide her appeal because of his involvement in effecting her discipline, yet they concealed this fact from Mitchell. Cale failed to meet with Mitchell about her appeal or investigate her claims, and he provided Mitchell's documentation to Shields but failed to provide her with documents Shields supplied to Cale.

         A hearing on Mitchell's appeal convened August 6, 2010. A participant referred to a letter Shields submitted to Cale concerning his findings during an investigation, which Shields had not provided to Mitchell. Hearing chair Tom Osborne (Caucasian) stopped the hearing to provide Mitchell a copy of the letter; however, Mitchell did not have time to read it because the hearing reconvened as soon as she received a copy. Mitchell had to respond to the contents of the letter at the hearing, without preparation. During the hearing, White advised that she, Shields, Cale, and Vice President Steve Smith (Caucasian) decided Mitchell's sanction, and Cale gave final approval. The appeal committee suggested other options for Mitchell's discipline, yet Cale opted to impose the original sanctions and probation. Mitchell claims she provided proof that Conlon violated policy by approving the initial replacement furniture purchase, yet UNA took no disciplinary action against her. She also asserts the mistreatment and harassment she experienced stemmed from Shields' desire to create a reason to terminate her or force her resignation.

         Mitchell faults Cale for failing to meet with her about the documentation she provided; instead, Cale directed her in a letter to meet with Shields to work out their differences. However, when Director of Student Conduct and Assessments Kimberly Greenway (Caucasian), who also reported to Shields, expressed issues with Shields, Cale met with her and provided advice. Cale then met with Shields, and Shields subsequently apologized to Greenway.

         After the pay reduction, Mitchell documented every interaction and endeavored to ensure her decisions and processes exceeded her Caucasian counterparts. She dreaded meeting with Shields because he demeaned her actions and questioned her judgment. Shields credited Jacques over Mitchell, despite Mitchell providing proof Jacques acted incorrectly. At one point, Greenway reported to Shields that Mitchell had been off work more than usual due to family illness, and thus, Mitchell believed officials watched her attendance more closely than other employees.

         In May 2013, the local newspaper published an article regarding construction of new residence halls at UNA which portended a loss of jobs. When Environmental Services staff, who reported to Mitchell, queried Shields about the article, he stated Mitchell should have informed them about the plans, and in the future, he would inform her staff directly regarding any developments that may affect their jobs. Mitchell contends Cale should have informed UNA staff before releasing the information to the newspaper, rather than Mitchell, because she had no authority to lay off or terminate employees, and Shields only told the Environmental Services employees Mitchell should have notified them to undermine her and make her appear incompetent. Mitchell did not report Shields' actions to Human Resources or Cale because she believed they would only cover for Shields.

         On July 4, 2013, a resident emailed Mitchell that someone on Mitchell's staff took belongings from the resident's room. Mitchell investigated the report by speaking with Brenda Terry (Caucasian), the person responsible for cleaning the building. Terry relayed that on July 2, 2013, she saw two Caucasian Resident Assistants loading items into a car parked by the building. Video footage confirmed Terry's report. A day later, another resident reported someone removed belongings from her room, and Mitchell advised the student to inquire about her belongings with Resident Life. Resident Life Senior Administrative Assistant Patricia Wood (Caucasian) inquired if the resident had checked out of her room, which the resident denied. Wood advised the resident to return for her belongings in a couple of days; the resident never received all of her property. The resident informed Mitchell that several residents reported to Shields that their property was missing from their rooms, leading Shields to wonder aloud about Jacques' office's involvement. Mitchell instructed Waddell to save the video footage from July 2. Mitchell contends the two Resident Assistants, whom Jacques supervised, committed felony theft, with Shields' knowledge, yet they received no reprimand or other disciplinary action.

         In May 2014, Shields announced to Mitchell's staff in a combined meeting with Jacques' staff that UNA would combine their areas and name a new executive director. However, Shields knew UNA had not approved this action. Mitchell never agreed to the reorganization, though UNA told the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during its investigation she had done so. Mitchell characterizes this statement as a blatant and intentional lie to cover up Shields' discrimination, harassment, and coercion of Mitchell and UNA's failure to prevent or correct Shields' behavior.

         On July 11, 2014, Mitchell and Waddell attended a meeting to discuss reorganization, which Shields and White also attended. Shields began the meeting by discussing an earlier meeting Mitchell and Waddell had with then Vice President for Business and Financial Affairs Clinton Carter (Caucasian), of which Shields only recently became aware.[3] Shields told Mitchell and Waddell that as a result of the meeting, they pitted Carter against Shields, lost credibility, and caused embarrassment to themselves, the Student Affairs Division, and Shields. Shields considered their actions grounds for dismissal. Shields then discussed the reorganization, which would result in demotions for Mitchell and Waddell, and asked if they were in agreement with possible job reclassification and reduction in payment. Shields provided Mitchell and Waddell with a copy of the reorganization chart and job descriptions.

         Waddell met with Interim President John Thornell[4] on July 14, 2014. Waddell shared his copy of the reorganization chart with Thornell, who claimed he had not seen the chart. Waddell also inquired about Shields' comments about possible dismissal from UNA, claiming the comments caused Waddell and Mitchell to feel threatened and subjected to retaliation. Thornell advised them to convey to Shields their acceptance of the reorganization to avoid the appearance of insubordination. He also stated he would meet with White about the information Waddell shared with him at this meeting.

         Mitchell met with Thornell on July 22, 2014. She discussed with him several incidents over the years she perceived as harassing and discriminatory, such as the 2010 sanction and appeal and the July 2, 2013, furniture removal incident. She further expressed her belief that Shields had White present at the July 11 meeting to intimidate Mitchell and Waddell into agreeing to the reorganization; lied about their meeting with Carter being an offense subjecting them to possible dismissal; and lied about the reorganization being a fait accompli that did not need their approval. She also shared her belief Shields intended to promote Jacques to Executive Director, making Jacques Mitchell's supervisor. Mitchell voiced her concern about any further one-on-one meetings with Shields and her inability to continue to report to Shields, and requested that UNA move her department under Clinton Carter.

         In October 2014, instead of transferring Mitchell's department under Carter, Shields created a new position for her still reporting directly to Shields. Mitchell believed she would have some input into the decision, based on her discussion with Thornell; however, Shields rejected her idea. Shields described Mitchell's new assignment as a coordinator position yet still at a Director level. Mitchell considered the position a “lame duck” position without authority, performed under the monitoring of Shields in the office next to his. (Doc. 14 at 35). Mitchell advised Thornell she would not accept the position, but UNA offered Mitchell no other solution. Therefore, Mitchell had to continue reporting to Shields for several months and perceived this as punishment.

         Mitchell lodged an EEOC charge and UNA received notification about December 4, 2014. She contends UNA purposefully lied to the EEOC that she agreed to the reorganization to make Mitchell's claims appear frivolous.

         Thereafter, Mitchell and Waddell met with Carter and White about relocating under Carter's division. They told Mitchell Shields would allow the relocation if UNA divided Mitchell's area, placing the older residence halls and apartments under Mitchell's control and placing Jacques in control of two new halls being built, as well as newer cluster halls. Mitchell declined this arrangement, along with other possible arrangements suggested at three later meetings. Carter reminded Mitchell if she did not accept any of the offers, she would remain under Shields' supervision.

         Around January 9, 2015, Shields agreed to allow Mitchell's Department of Housing to transfer under Carter's supervision. When Mitchell expressed to Thornell concerns about reprisal, he responded that the situation was similar to a divorce and all parties needed to move on. Mitchell alleges she experienced several incidents of retaliation and reported some, to no avail. Carter told her if she continued to make reports, it would not fare well for her and that the EEOC charge needed to go away.

         To chronicle the claimed retaliation, Mitchell cites changes to the 2015-2016 UNA catalog portraying all areas of Mitchell's responsibility falling under Jacques despite the transfer to Carter's supervision, thus making it appear that Mitchell no longer worked for UNA. In addition, Mitchell cites a May 18, 2015, meeting in Jacques' office attended by people representing various areas of campus, including Carter, Mitchell, and Mitchell's new supervisor. Shields told the gathering he went through Mitchell's UNA website and found errors, such as a link to an incorrect form.

         Mitchell had her administrative assistant correct the error within minutes. However, Jacques' UNA website contained multiple errors which Shields did not address, and certainly not in a roomful of peers.

         In addition, in June 2015, Shields included in a report embarrassing and untruthful information allegedly concerning Mitchell's area.[5] However, the information appeared in the section involving University Residences, Jacques' area of responsibility. UNA usually disseminates the report to the media, deans, vice presidents, and Board members a week prior to the Board of Trustees meeting. Waddell reported the inclusion of this statement to Carter. The morning of the meeting, before it convened, Shields edited the report to omit the erroneous statement.

         Mitchell met with Carter, at Mitchell's request, on June 9, 2015, to inquire about UNA's position on Shields' actions. Carter related that Shields apologized to him and expressed lack of knowledge that Jacques had included this statement, but Mitchell believed Shields should have apologized to her. Mitchell alleges Shields reads the annual reports before submitting the final copy for the Board meeting; therefore, he must have been aware of its inclusion. Mitchell faults Shields for failing to reprimand Jacques. When she complained to Carter, Carter discouraged her from reporting everything. Therefore, Mitchell advised Carter she would cease reporting to him and instead would document and submit her observations to the EEOC and her attorney; he agreed that might be best.

         Mitchell alleges she reported harassment, discrimination, and coercion numerous times to numerous UNA authorities starting in 2010, yet none of these persons took any action. She also contends Carter's admonition to cease reporting all actions which she believed discriminatory, harassing, and retaliatory countermands UNA policy. She cites Carter's admonition as further evidence of a hostile work environment. She had to argue and resist Carter's attempts to give some of her areas of responsibility to Shields, and faults Carter for advising her to learn how to play office politics rather than protecting her. Mitchell alleges she began experiencing elevated blood pressure in 2011 and commenced medication to treat this ailment. After one particularly stressful interaction with Carter in December 2014, Mitchell's blood pressure rose to dangerous levels.

         Mitchell also alleges she requested a copy of her personnel file but found it did not contain all documentation she submitted regarding her 2010 discipline. When Mitchell contacted Cale's office, he stated he would allow her to review her file, under supervision, but she could not make copies or take pictures. Mitchell claims the failure to allow her to copy her file violated UNA's policy.

         Mitchell also refers to a policy violation by another African-American employee which resulted in termination. This employee, Jermaine Ferguson, transferred from Mitchell's department to Shields' and Jacques' department, and Mitchell claims they used Ferguson to obtain information about Mitchell. However, when they no longer found him useful to them, they terminated him for a minor infraction.

         Mitchell cites one instance during which she felt physically threatened and afraid. On August 5, 2016, after Mitchell no longer worked under Shields, the fire alarms in Mitchell's work building went off. After Mitchell left the building and then returned, the alarms continued to sound. Shields entered Mitchell's office without warning to advise her that they could not find the problem and all personnel had to evacuate the building again. Mitchell alleges she was startled and afraid because she did not know if Shields might snap, because of their prior difficult interactions, and possibly cause her physical harm. She expressed her preference that Shields never enter her office unannounced.

         On September 14, 2016, Mitchell attended a meeting with White, Shields, Jacques, and interim Vice President for Business and Fiscal Affairs Evan Thornton. At the meeting, White read a statement noting the ongoing conflict between Mitchell and Jacques, which caused dysfunction at UNA and negatively affected the students. Therefore, UNA hired a consultant to assist in resolving the conflict. White requested Mitchell and Jacques prepare position statements on the issues as they perceived them. She admonished both of them to work through their issues and collaborate in a functional manner, or risk termination for insubordination. She mentioned problems occurring during the Fall 2016 student move-in. White also stressed the confidential nature of the process and stated she would act as their sole source of contact.

         Mitchell avers she received no notification or complaints about problems arising when the students returned for fall semester, and that her area no longer bears responsibility for the move-in process. Rather, her only involvement pertains to providing custodial support at Jacques' request. She expresses surprise that problems with the move-in process would lead UNA to hire a consultant, when her complaints over the years fell on deaf ears and prompted no investigation.

         Mitchell asserts this litigation and reports about it in the student newspaper have angered UNA, and UNA therefore is retaliating against her by labeling her as a troublemaker and trying to gather evidence to terminate her. Mitchell alleges current UNA President Kenneth Kitts knows about the events of the past years, yet instead of addressing her concerns, he has accused her of committing acts causing harm to UNA, its students, and their parents, by hiring a consultant and threatening her job when she has no awareness of the basis for such accusations.

         Mitchell complains she had to endure much to receive protection and relocation, even with documentation, yet Caucasian counterparts can achieve a person's removal with little to no evidence. As an example, she cites 2015 accusations by Caucasian women that their director made derogatory remarks about females, resulting in his immediate removal from his position based only on their word. Some of the women recanted their statements, but UNA did not reinstate the director; however, he received a Friend of the University award and appeared in the homecoming parade. Mitchell contrasts this with her protests, supported by documentation, which failed to result in Shields' removal.

         As stated previously, Mitchell filed an EEOC charge in December 2014, alleging race discrimination. It appears she filed an amended charge on January 13, 2015. (Doc. 1-1). Mitchell also filed an EEOC charge of retaliation in March 2015 (420-2105-01362), which she intended as an amendment to her January 2015 charge. However, the EEOC closed its investigation and sent a notice of right to sue on that charge in March 2015.

         In the Third Amended Complaint, Mitchell asserts causes of action for race discrimination, pursuant to Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981; retaliation, pursuant to Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1983; violation of Fourteenth Amendment due process rights, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; hostile work environment, pursuant to Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981; coercion, in violation of Alabama Code § 13A-6-25; and defamation, pursuant to Alabama Code § 15-8-150.

         In a notice filed August 3, 2018, Mitchell asks the court to consider additional allegations in support of her claims in this action.[6] She avers that on January 19, 2017, Catherine White convened a meeting which included Mitchell, Shields, Jacques, White, and Evan Thornton (Caucasian). White announced effective February 1, 2017, Mitchell's area of responsiblity would transfer back under the auspices of Shields and combine with Jacques' area, with Kimberley Greenway serving as Executive Director over the combined area. Greenway stated Mitchell's office would adjoin Jacques' office ...


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