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Hale v. University of Alabama Board of Trustees

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

September 5, 2018

ENATRA HALE, Plaintiff,



         This 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 be granted.

         I. Factual Background [1]

         The 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.

         A. The Challenged Declarations Will be Considered

         As an 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.

         B. Plaintiff's Work History

         UAB 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).

         Dr. 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 BSL-3 Labs).

         From 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.[2] (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).

         On 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.[3] (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).

         On 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.).

         On May 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.”[4] (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).

         On May 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.).

         The 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 Plaintiff:

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 tomorrow.

(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).

         In June 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).

         On July 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].”[5] (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).

         Plaintiff 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).

         On 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).

         C. Plaintiff's Proposed Comparators in the Steyn Lab

         After 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 Lab.

         1. Dr. Glasgow

         Dr. 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 257).

         2. Dr. Vikram Saini

         Steyn 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).

         3. Krishna Chaitanya Chinta

         Steyn 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).

         4. ...

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