United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
case is before the court on Defendant University of Alabama
Board of Trustees' (“Board of Trustees”)
Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 60) and Defendant Dr.
Andries Steyn's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 62).
The Motions are fully briefed (see Docs. # 61, 63,
67-68, 74-75), and they are ripe for decision. After careful
review, and for the reasons explained below, Defendant Board
of Trustees' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 60) is
due to be granted in part and denied in part, and Defendant
Steyn's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 62) is due to
Factual Background 
court begins by analyzing Plaintiff's evidentiary
objection to four declarations submitted by Defendants. It
then discusses Plaintiff's work history under Dr. Steyn,
based on the undisputed facts and the disputed facts as
viewed in Plaintiff's favor. To conclude the background
section, this Opinion outlines pertinent information about
Plaintiff's proposed comparators.
The Challenged Declarations Will be Considered
initial matter, Plaintiff argues that the court should
disregard four declarations submitted by employees of the
University of Alabama at Birmingham (“UAB”)
because the declarations fail to specify what the declarant
personally knows. (Doc. # 68 at 3-4). Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 56 requires a declaration to be based on personal
knowledge (rather than information and belief) and to state
the basis for the declarant's personal knowledge.
Duke v. Nationstar Mortg., L.L.C., 893 F.Supp.2d
1238, 1244 (N.D. Ala. 2012). The court finds that each
challenged declaration is based on the declarant's
personal knowledge and provides a basis for the
declarant's personal knowledge supporting his or her
testimony. (Docs. # 64-9 at 2-3; 64-10 at 2 (describing the
declarant's work experience supporting her personal
knowledge); 64-11 at 2-3; 64-12 at 2-3). Accordingly,
Plaintiff's evidentiary challenge to these declarations
is due to be overruled.
Plaintiff's Work History
initially hired Plaintiff, a black female, as a radiology
clerk in 1987. (Doc. # 64-1 at 14, 47). She became a research
assistant in 2003 and started working for Defendant Dr.
Steyn, a UAB professor, in August 2003. (Id. at
47-48; Doc. # 64-3 at 29). At that time, Plaintiff
facilitated the day-to-day operations of Dr. Steyn's
laboratory (the “Steyn Lab”) by maintaining
equipment, ordering reagents, shipping cultures, working with
radioisotopes, organizing the lab, training personnel about
safety protocols, receiving and sending mail, and handling
material transfer agreements, among other duties. (Docs. #
64-2 at 53; 64-3 at 39-42). Plaintiff did not perform
scientific research for the Steyn Lab. (Docs. # 64-3 at
255-57; 64-11 at 4).
Steyn served as the Steyn Lab's principal investigator
and was responsible for obtaining grant funding for the
salaries and expenses incurred by the lab. (Docs. # 64-3 at
39; 64-9 at 4). UAB's microbiology department monitored
his grant awards and expenses in order to ensure that Dr.
Steyn did not overspend. (Doc. # 64-9 at 3). Kristina
Sinclair, an employee in UAB's microbiology department,
testified that the department projected out each lab's
expenses for an 18 to 24 month period to ensure that each lab
did not overspend its grants. (Doc. # 64-5 at 13-14, 95). Dr.
Steyn determined how the grant funds were to be distributed
to fund his staff's salaries. (Doc. # 64-10 at 4). Dr.
Steyn lived in South Africa during the relevant time period,
so Dr. Joel Glasgow directed the Steyn Lab's day-to-day
research activities in Birmingham. (Doc. # 64-11 at 3). Dr.
Steyn's research laboratory was located on the third
floor of the Bevill Biomedical Research Building
(“BBRB”). (Doc. # 64-9 at 3). The BBRB also
housed a Biosafety Level 2 laboratory (“BSL-2
Lab”) and a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory (“BSL-3
Lab”) that Dr. Steyn's personnel used.
(See Doc. # 64-12 at 3-4) (describing the BSL-2 and
July 2012 to December 2013, three grants funded
Plaintiff's UAB salary in a consistent proportion.
(See Doc. # 64-4 at 55-63). The “Mechanism of
Mycobacterium Tuberculosis Persistence” grant funded 50
percent of Plaintiff's salary during this period.
(See id.). This grant ended on June 30, 2014. (Doc.
# 64-5 at 93). The “Carbon Monoxide and Mycobacterium
Tuberculosis Persistence” grant funded 40 percent of
Plaintiff's salary from July 2012 to December 2013.
(See Doc. # 64-4 at 55-63). This grant ended in June
2016. (Doc. # 64-5 at 93-94). The “Role of WhiB3 in M.
Tuberculosis Virulence” grant funded 10 percent of
Plaintiff's salary from July 2012 to December 2013.
(See Doc. # 64-4 at 55-63). This grant ended in
March 2015. (Doc. # 64-5 at 93). Steyn testified that he
received notice of an upcoming decrease in available funding
in November 2013. (Doc. # 64-3 at 252). And, Sinclair told
Steyn that he needed to “rightsize his lab” in
late 2013 and early 2014. (Doc. # 64-5 at 110-11). From January
2014 to June 2014, the “Carbon Monoxide and
Mycobacterium Tuberculosis Persistence” grant funded 90
percent of Plaintiff's salary, and the “Role of
WhiB3 in M. Tuberculosis Virulence” funded 10 percent
of her salary. (Doc. # 64-4 at 64-65).
January 28, 2014, Plaintiff met with Dr. Steyn. (Doc. # 64-1
at 59). Plaintiff testified that Dr. Steyn “wanted
[her] out of his lab” because she had reported her
safety concerns to UAB's Occupational Health and Safety
office. (Id.). Dr. Steyn demanded that Plaintiff
resign her position, but she refused. (Id. at 60).
Plaintiff declined Dr. Steyn's demand to submit a
resignation letter, but she intended to give him a letter
reflecting her intent to transfer to another UAB position.
(Id. at 65-66). On February 5, 2014, Dr. Steyn
emailed Plaintiff a sample resignation letter and asked her
to fill it out and return it to him. (Doc. # 64-13 at 141).
Plaintiff responded that she would “get the letter to
[Steyn] as soon as possible.” (Id. at 142). On
February 13, 2014, Dr. Steyn reiterated to Plaintiff that he
needed “that letter by the end of today” and
asked her to date it for June 1, 2014. (Id. at 151).
Plaintiff construed this email as a request for a
resignation. (Doc. # 64-1 at 69).
February 14, 2014, Plaintiff signed and sent Dr. Steyn a
letter stating that she would transfer from her position in
the Steyn Lab on or before June 1, 2014. (Doc. # 64-4 at 22).
When she submitted the letter, she intended to transfer to
another job on or before June 1, 2014. (Doc. # 64-1 at 72).
She applied for other UAB positions, but failed to obtain
another job. (See id.).
1, 2014, Sinclair asked Plaintiff about where (i.e., which
department) she would be transferring. (Doc. # 64-16 at 53).
Plaintiff responded that she had not obtained another
position and had not met with UAB's human relations
office. (Id.). On May 2, 2014, Sinclair met with
Plaintiff and advised her to contact UAB's employee
relations department if she felt that the issue required
“outside departmental intervention.”
(Id. at 57). That same day, Sinclair sent Dr. Steyn
and Dr. Glasgow a proposed termination memorandum for
Plaintiff. (Id. at 54-56). She wrote that the
memorandum could be used “if you decide to move forward
with eliminating [Plaintiff's] position because of the
transfer of the BSL-3 lab to SEBLAB.” (Id. at
54). Sinclair's draft memorandum stated that
Plaintiff's employment would be terminated on May 31,
2014 because of the lab relocation. (Id. at 44).
7, 2014, Plaintiff met with Sinclair, Anne Graham, and
Danielle Coteat. (Docs. # 64-1 at 79-80; 64-22 at 42). By
that time, Plaintiff asserts, she believed that the February
2014 letter she had submitted was illegitimate. (Doc. # 64-1
at 81-82). Plaintiff recalled that she denied signing the
letter Dr. Steyn presented to her and complained that Steyn
had coerced her to resign because she had raised safety
concerns with UAB's Occupational Health & Safety
office. (Id. at 79). She testified that Sinclair
spoke aggressively during the meeting, attempted to
intimidate her, and claimed that no one liked working with
her. (Id. at 80-81). At the end of the meeting,
Graham told Plaintiff that the letter was legitimate and that
she would have to resign on June 1. (Id. at 82).
Twenty minutes later, Sinclair called Plaintiff to another
meeting where Graham informed her that the letter was not a
valid resignation letter. (Id.).
next day, on May 8, 2014, Sinclair informed Dr. Steyn that
Plaintiff had “rescinded her resignation.” (Doc.
# 64-16 at 58). Dr. Steyn then sent the following email to
Enatra, what is going on? Is this true? You offered your
resignation and signed a letter; that is what you agreed upon
and we had long discussions about it. You told me repeatedly
that you have no issue in resigning! In anticipation of you
leaving the lab, I already initiated efforts to change the
research focus of my lab. This is a disaster…
Please send me a list of your job duties; I will need it by
(Id. at 59). Plaintiff believed that the email was
threatening and angry. (Doc. # 64-1 at 188-89). On May 8 or
9, 2014, Plaintiff met with Kelly Mayer, another UAB human
relations employee, and complained about Dr. Steyn's
mistreatment of her. (Id. at 134-35). She told Mayer
that she interpreted Dr. Steyn's demand for a description
of job duties as a threat because he had stated that she was
“disrupting the laboratory.” (Id. at
136). She also complained that Steyn Lab employees were
monitoring her work activities and recording when she arrived
at work and ate lunch. (Id. at 136-37). On May 12,
2014, Plaintiff sent a description of her current job duties
to Dr. Steyn and Sinclair. (Doc. # 64-2 at 53).
2014, Dr. Steyn assigned Plaintiff additional
“scientific duties” that she was to perform in
order to receive funding for her salary from the Steyn
Lab's grants. (Id. at 54-55). Among other
things, Steyn instructed Plaintiff to change and maintain
animal cages in the BSL-2 Lab, stock the BSL-3 Lab's
dressing room with supplies, prepare materials for the BSL-2
and BSL-3 Labs, and maintain and clean the BSL-2 Lab.
(Id.). He also directed Plaintiff to start work at 8
a.m. so that she would be available to assist other Steyn Lab
personnel. (Id. at 55). Plaintiff testified that Dr.
Steyn “removed” her from working in the BSL-3 Lab
after she withdrew her letter and assigned her to help other
Steyn Lab employees and clean up the laboratories. (Doc. #
64-1 at 191). She contends that Steyn assigned her additional
cleaning duties in retaliation for her complaints about
safety issues in the laboratories. (Id. at 192). She
also claims that Steyn reassigned some of her administrative
duties. (Id. at 193-94). From July 2014 to December
2014, the “Carbon Monoxide and Mycobacterium
Tuberculosis Persistence” grant funded all of
Plaintiff's salary. (Doc. # 64-4 at 66-67).
17, 2014, Plaintiff met with Dr. Steyn, Dr. Glasgow, and
Sinclair. (Doc. # 64-1 at 96). Plaintiff testified that Dr.
Steyn used profanities and derogatory language during the
meeting. (Id.). Dr. Steyn claimed that others in the
Steyn Lab disliked Plaintiff's work habits and only
sought her assistance as a last resort. (Id. at
96-97, 100). When Plaintiff asked to speak with the employees
who had complained about her, Dr. Steyn responded that
“he didn't have to bring any goddamn body to any
goddamn meeting to prove anything to
[Plaintiff].” (Id. at 97). Plaintiff complained
about Sinclair's attendance at the meeting because
Sinclair's aggressiveness towards her during the May 2014
meeting made Plaintiff uncomfortable. (Id. at 98).
Dr. Steyn asked Sinclair to remain in the meeting. (Doc. #
64-6 at 29). During the meeting, Dr. Steyn instructed
Plaintiff to clean up the laboratory and to address Dr.
Glasgow as “Doctor” rather than by his first
name. (Doc. # 64-1 at 101). Plaintiff contends Dr. Steyn did
not direct any other employee to address Dr. Glasgow by his
title, rather than his first name. (Doc. # 64-3 at 189).
also testified that Dr. Steyn often displayed an unwelcome
manner towards black delivery workers and coworkers and asked
them why they were in his lab. (Doc. # 64-1 at 169-71). She
described his discriminatory actions as “subtle.”
(Id. at 172). She perceived that Dr. Steyn dismissed
her complaints about safety protocol violations, but
addressed concerns raised by other Steyn Lab employees.
(Id. at 125). She recalled that Dr. Steyn once
described her as “bitchy” and directed her to
“do what I say do” when she was discussing an
issue regarding the BSL-3 Lab. (Id. at 124).
September 29, 2014, Sinclair wrote Dr. Steyn and discussed a
funding shortfall that UAB had projected for his lab in 2015.
(Doc. # 64-16 at 204). She prepared two termination letters
for Plaintiff and Jason Freeman, both of whom were eligible
for severance pay if terminated. (Id. at 204-05).
Freeman, a black male, worked as a research technician in the
Steyn Lab and did not perform scientific research. (Doc. #
64-3 at 236, 259). Sinclair advised Dr. Steyn that three of
his employees were temporary or irregular employees who
worked on an “at will” basis. (Doc. # 64-16 at
204). Dr. Steyn decided to proceed with terminating
Plaintiff's employment, as well as that of Freeman, on
October 8, 2014. (Id.). On October 13, 2014, Steyn
informed Plaintiff of her termination in a Skype telephone
call and read the termination memorandum to her. (Doc. # 64-1
at 104-05). The memo stated that Steyn terminated Plaintiff
due to a lack of funding. (Doc. # 64-24 at 2). Upon her
termination on November 9, 2014, Plaintiff received three
months' severance pay. (Id.). As of the date of
her dismissal, Plaintiff had the longest tenure of any
employee in the Steyn Lab. (Doc. # 64-3 at 45).
Plaintiff's Proposed Comparators in the Steyn
Dr. Steyn terminated Plaintiff and Freeman in October 2014,
that left six employees working in the Steyn Lab.
(See Doc. # 64-16 at 204-05) (listing all of the
employees in the Steyn Lab as of September 29, 2014).
Plaintiff has identified four of the six employees as
potential comparators in her opposition brief. (Doc. # 67 at
20-21). The court discusses each proposed comparator below
and then briefly addresses the other employees in the Steyn
Glasgow, a white male, is an assistant professor at UAB who
began working in the Steyn Lab in August 2011. (See
Doc. # 64-3 at 43, 189, 257; 64-11 at 2-3). He obtained a
doctoral degree in cell biology from the University of Texas
Medical Branch in 2000 and has worked continuously in higher
education since 2005. (Doc. # 64-11 at 2). During
Plaintiff's tenure in the Steyn Lab, Dr. Glasgow managed
the Lab's activities because Dr. Steyn resided in South
Africa. (Id. at 3). Grants awarded to the Steyn Lab
by the National Institutes of Health required a faculty
member to be present and overseeing research activities
conducted under the grants. (Id.). Dr. Glasgow
performed scientific research for Dr. Steyn. (Doc. # 64-3 at
Dr. Vikram Saini
hired Dr. Saini, an Indian male, in 2010 as a postdoctoral
fellow. (Docs. # 64-3 at 257-58; 64-34 at 4). Dr. Saini
obtained a master's degree from Kurkshetra University in
India in 2003 and a doctoral degree in biochemistry from the
University of Delhi in India in 2011. (Doc. # 64-34 at 65).
Dr. Saini performed scientific research for Dr. Steyn as a
postdoctoral fellow. (Doc. # 64-3 at 258).
Krishna Chaitanya Chinta
hired Chinta, an Indian male, in 2012 as a temporary research
assistant. (See Docs. # 64-3 at 258; 64-28 at 3-5).
Chinta holds a master's degree in biotechnology. (Doc. #
64-28 at 7). He worked for three years at a molecular cell
biology laboratory in Hyderabad, India before working for Dr.
Steyn. (Id.). He performed scientific research for
Dr. Steyn as a research assistant. (Doc. # 64-3 at 258-59).
Dr. Glasgow declared that Chinta's laboratory work was
more critical to the laboratory's success and funding
because he “performed independent, NIH-funded
scientific research.” (Doc. # 64-11 at 4).