Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Waite v. Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama

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

November 2, 2018

MEGAN WAITE, Plaintiff,
v.
THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN E. OTT, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         In this action, Plaintiff Megan Waite, a former graduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (“UAB”), claims that its Board of Trustees (the “Board”) is liable for pregnancy discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k). (Doc.[1] 1). The cause now comes to be heard on the Board's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 27). For the reasons explained below, the court[2] concludes that the motion is due to be granted.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS

         Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a defendant is authorized to move for summary judgment on 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.” Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 56(a). 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 Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991); Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144 (1970). Once the moving party has met its burden, the nonmoving party must “go beyond the pleadings” and show 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.” Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 56(c)(1)(A), (B). In its review of the record, a court must credit the evidence of the non-movant and draw all justifiable inferences in that party'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 March 2013, Plaintiff was admitted as a graduate student in UAB's Behavioral Neuroscience (“BN”) Program in the Department of Psychology. Plaintiff enrolled that summer, and she remained an active participant the program for all of one academic year, 2013-2014, and most of the next, 2014-2015. Plaintiff's last day actually in classes and performing lab work was in early June 2015, whereupon she went on maternity leave. Ultimately, in August 2016, she notified the BN Program Director, Dr. Frank Amthor, that she no longer would be participating in the program and thus desired to terminate her student status.

         In her two years in the program, Plaintiff was awarded a “tuition scholarship, ” which covered not only the cost of courses but also “mandatory fees, including medical/hospital insurance and insurance administration fees.” (Doc. 29 at 10, 13). In both years Plaintiff was also appointed as a “Graduate Trainee.” As such, UAB paid her a “stipend” of $1, 972.50 per month, translating to $23, 670.00 annually, which, according to her appointment letters, was “intended to help [her] be a full-time student, immersed in [her] graduate program.” (Doc. 29-2 at 8, 11). Indeed, as a condition of receiving her stipend, Plaintiff was prohibited from engaging in any other paid work on or off campus without written consent of the dean of the graduate school. (Id.)

         The letter offering Plaintiff her stipend for the 2013-14 academic year labeled that appointment a “Graduate Trainee Fellowship, ” for which “[n]o services are required as a condition.” (Id. at 8). Rather, it mandated only that Plaintiff “register for, and satisfactorily complete” a specified number of course credit hours and “remain in good standing and make satisfactory progress toward [her] degree.” (Id.) That letter further explained that, in each subsequent year, her stipend might be in the form of either another “Graduate Fellowship” or a “Graduate Assistantship.” (Id.) If it were the latter, the letter said, Plaintiff would “be given a service assignment of no more than 20 hours per week by [her] mentor, Graduate Program Director, or Departmental Chair, ” designed “to enhance [her] professional development, as well as contribute to the teaching, research, or service missions of the university.” (Id.) To that end, while Plaintiff's appointment letter for her second academic year, 2014-15, did not use the term “Assistantship, ” it expressly stated that she would be given just such a weekly “assignment.” (Doc. 29-2 at 11). That letter also no longer referred to her appointment as a “fellowship” and no longer provided that “no services were required.” Finally, Plaintiff's 2014-15 appointment letter again recognized that she had to “remain in good standing and make satisfactory progress toward [her] degree, ” specifically requiring her to “register for, and satisfactorily complete, at least 23 semester hours of approved graduate course work each year (at least 9 hours in the Fall and Spring and 5 hours in the summer).” (Id. at 11; see also Id. at 69, 71).

         Despite the characterization in Plaintiff's appointment letter that her first-year stipend was a “fellowship” for which “no services” were “required, ” Plaintiff nonetheless regularly worked in UAB labs during both of her years in the program. First year students in the BN program went through three lab rotations, one per academic term, at the conclusion of which they would select a professor they wanted to serve as their program “mentor.” (Doc. 29-13; see also Doc. 29-3, Deposition of Robert Sorge (“Sorge Dep.”) at 63). Per UAB policy, graduate students also received one semester hour of course credit toward their degree for every 30 hours of such lab work. (Doc. 29-2 at 68). In Plaintiff's case, she started her first year working in the lab of Dr. Robert Sorge, a professor in UAB's Department of Psychology, from the summer of 2013 to December of that year. (Doc. 29-2 at 51). For the spring term, from January to April 2014, she worked in a different psychology professor's lab before rotating back to Dr. Sorge's lab in May 2014. (Id.) Plaintiff ultimately chose Dr. Sorge as her program mentor, and his was the only lab in which she worked thereafter while in the program. (Id.)

         In December 2014, Plaintiff told Dr. Sorge that she was pregnant. Soon after, they had a discussion about maternity leave. Under the policy of the UAB graduate school, graduate trainees and graduate assistants are entitled to 30 work days of paid parental leave. (Doc. 29-8 at 13). Dr. Sorge told Plaintiff that she could take that time either as six weeks of full-time absence or as a combination of fewer weeks of full-time leave followed by a period of half-time leave. (Sorge Dep. at 18). Plaintiff recounts that she and Dr. Sorge “discussed her taking six weeks of full-time absence” and that, “at the beginning of the discussions, [she] left it open to [taking] two to four weeks of part-time return, ” and she “ultimately decide[d] on” leave that would include two weeks of part-time hours. (Doc. 29-1, Plaintiff's Deposition (“Pl. Dep.”) at 25).

         On January 3, 2015, Plaintiff sent an email to Tammie Quinn, the supervisor of Dr. Sorge's lab, setting out a schedule of pre- and post-natal doctor's appointments she expected to attend, as well as the due date for her baby: July 30, 2015. (Doc. 29-6 at 6-7). On June 5, 2015, however, Plaintiff sent an email to Terri Roberson, the Graduate Programs Manager for the Psychology Department, notifying her that, due to complications with Plaintiff's pregnancy, her doctor had placed her on bed rest, requiring an immediate leave of absence. (Doc. 29-2 at 18; see also Doc. 29-6 at 13). Plaintiff further inquired about her leave, including how it would be split between paid and unpaid, maternity and medical otherwise, and what she needed to do. (Doc. 29-2 at 18). Roberson responded with an email explaining that, as it related to Plaintiff's “Graduate Trainee/ Fellowship” appointment, she would immediately go on “paid parental leave” for 30 work days, covering a six-week period from June 8 to July 17, 2015. (Doc. 29-2 at 96-97). Once that expired, Roberson said, Plaintiff would need to request a “Leave of Academic Absence” through the graduate school, as outlined in the UAB Graduate Student Handbook. (Id.; see also Id. at 69). Roberson observed that Plaintiff would not be paid during that leave of academic absence. (Doc. 29-2 at 96-97). However, it appears that UAB continued to pay Plaintiff's stipend through July 31, 2015, albeit inadvertently, thereby giving her two weeks of paid maternity leave beyond that to which she was entitled under UAB's policy. (Pl. Dep. at 87; Roberson Dep. at 40-41, 91; Doc. 29-6 at 21). Finally, Roberson stated that, as it related to Plaintiff's “enrollment as a student, ” she would also need to complete an attached form requesting a “medical withdrawal” from her summer 2015 coursework. (Id.) Thereafter, Plaintiff's submitted such a request (Doc. 29-2 at 99) that was then approved. (Id. at 101). As a result, she was dropped from her only summer course: research work in Dr. Sorge's lab for five credit hours. (Id. at 102).

         On July 27, 2015, Plaintiff delivered her baby. On August 6th, with fall term classes slated to begin on August 24th, Roberson emailed Plaintiff asking about her plans and noting “the need to get [her] processed for the next academic year.” (Doc. 29-2 at 16). On August 17th, Plaintiff responded, stating that she was “thinking of taking 4 more weeks” of full-time leave, until mid-September, and then “doing a few weeks [of] half days before coming back full time … around Oct[ober].” (Id. at 14). Roberson replied the same day, telling Plaintiff that since she would not be returning at the beginning of the fall term, it was “not as urgent” to get her scholarship and appointment offer letters for the upcoming 2015-16 academic year prepared and signed. (Id.)

         The next morning, August 18, 2015, Roberson forwarded to Dr. Sorge and Quinn the email Plaintiff had sent the day before. (Doc. 29-6 at 32). Dr. Sorge replied to Roberson stating, “That sounds good for [Plaintiff] to be back in October, but my concern is that she will not be in the lab for those research credit hours for this term. It hardly seems fair to the other students in the program who are present to earn those hours.” (Id. at 31). Meanwhile, after receiving Plaintiff's forwarded email from Roberson, Quinn sent a text message that same morning to Plaintiff asking her whether she was “planning to take seminar and research hours, ” adding that she, Quinn, was “not sure how that will work with part-time hours.” (Doc. 29-6 at 22). Plaintiff texted back that she too was “not really sure how any of that stuff would work” but that she recalled Dr. Sorge saying “at the beginning” that he “wouldn't mind if [she] came back part time for a little bit before coming back full time.” (Id. at 22-23). Plaintiff added that she had to be on campus for an appointment the next day and another the next week and that she “figured [she] would stop in to talk about” her return. (Id.) Quinn texted back that, indeed, “no one seems to know” how the leave and return issues were supposed to be handled. (Id. at 24). Quinn acknowledged, however, that “part-time to full-time [was] still ok, ” though she also noted that “a problem comes with the registration for full-time and the number of credit hours.” (Id. at 24).

         Later that same afternoon of August 18th, Quinn sent an email to Dr. Sorge asking for his approval of a draft of an email that she planned to send to Plaintiff. (Doc. 29-6 at 30-31). In that proposed email, Quinn would offer Plaintiff two options for her return from leave. In one, Plaintiff would simply take a leave of absence for the entire the fall term and return full time at the start of the spring term in January 2016. In the other, Plaintiff would register full-time for fall classes, return part-time in September 2015 and then full-time in October. (Id.) Quinn further proposed telling Plaintiff, however, that the latter scenario entailed an issue related to the number of lab hours she would have to complete to qualify for her required course credit hours. (Id.) Dr. Sorge responded that Quinn's proposed email “sounds fine, ” though he suggested that she might also “want to lay out the fact that 8 credit hours is 240 lab hours plus the assistantship.” (Id. at 30). Quinn replied, “That part will be up to you when she comes in to speak with you. I believe she will come in this week.” (Id.) Following the exchange, Quinn sent an email to Plaintiff on August 18, 2015, stating as follows:

After speaking with both [Roberson] and the grad office there are two possible scenarios. #1. You could take a leave of absence for the fall semester and then return full force in January. #2. You would have to register full-time for fall classes, return part-time in September and full time in October. Your letter of offer would reflect an Oct[ober] date, accommodating your part-time start and the fact you were paid extra weeks in July. (The main consideration in this scenario is the amount [of] lab hours you have to complete in order to qualify for your credits). Hope this is helpful. Talk to [Dr. Sorge] about it so that you guys can decide on the best course of action.

(Doc. 29-2 at 75).

         Although Plaintiff had indicated in her text to Quinn that she would be coming by the lab in the next week to talk to Dr. Sorge about her return, and Quinn's had also instructed Plaintiff to do so, Plaintiff did not. On August 25, 2015, with fall classes having started the day before, and no one having heard from Plaintiff in a week, Roberson sent Plaintiff a follow-up email, copied to Dr. Sorge and Quinn, stating as follows:

I know you are busy, and I don't mean to rush you. Please know that you must decide this week on which option below in [Quinn's] email [of August 18th] will work best for you. Your tuition has not been paid, and we will need to get your return date to place in your offer and tuition scholarship letters. The last day to withdraw without paying full tuition and fees is Monday, August 31st, so we need to move forward on a resolution by Friday[, August 28th].
Be in touch as soon as you can.

(Doc. 29-2 at 74). The next day, Wednesday, August 26th, Dr. Sorge sent an email to Quinn acknowledging Roberson's above email to Plaintiff and asking Quinn to text Plaintiff to make sure that she responded to Roberson's email “ASAP.” (Doc. 29-6 at 34). “Otherwise, ” Dr. Sorge wrote, “we will withdraw her from the program for Fall.” (Id.) Quinn replied that she had already sent Plaintiff “multiple emails” but that she would text her as well. (Id. at 33). Dr. Sorge replied: “Text her again and let her know that she needs to address this ASAP. She hasn't contacted me yet at all and I'm starting to feel as if withdrawing is the best option, at this point.” (Id.)

         On Friday, August 28th, at 1:05 p.m., Dr. Sorge sent an email to Roberson stating, “I have still heard nothing from [Plaintiff] and I don't believe [Quinn] has either. Assuming that she hasn't contacted you, I would suggest withdrawing her from the program for this term.” (Doc. 29-6 at 35). Roberson, in turn, sent an email to the UAB registrar's office at 1:57 p.m. asking that Plaintiff be withdrawn from the two classes for which she had registered for the fall term, a one semester-hour seminar and eight semester-hours of work in Dr. Sorge's lab. (Id. at 36).

         Unaware that she had been withdrawn, Plaintiff sent an email to Roberson, Dr. Sorge, and Quinn at 3:44 p.m., responding to Roberson's email of August 25th, advising Plaintiff that she had to decide on one of the two options set forth in Quinn's email of August 18th. (Doc. 29-2 at 74). In her response email, Plaintiff stated: “Option 2 would be good for me if that's okay, ” meaning she preferred to register full-time for fall classes, return part-time in September and then full time in October. (Id. at 74; see also Id. at 75). Apologizing for her “late response, ” Plaintiff further explained that she had “already set her childcare start at that point” and that she “couldn't get ahold of anyone to get clarification on the hours thing, but if that seems prohibitive for whatever reason what would the cost be for late withdrawal?” (Id.) At 3:57 p.m., Roberson sent with an email back to Plaintiff, copied to Sorge and Quinn, stating:

I have already withdrawn you from classes for this semester, as a result of not hearing back from you. I tried to reach by telephone before having your classes administratively dropped this afternoon. UAB doesn't have provisions for late withdrawals. If you were to withdraw after August 31st, full tuition and fees would still be required. If you can work out the time schedule with [Dr. Sorge] and [Quinn], you have until the 31st to add the courses back to your schedule. However, if you are doubtful that you can work the number of hours required for course credit, you may want to consider not adding them back to your schedule.
The other issue is insurance. I seriously hated to withdraw you [from] classes because I did not know if you needed insurance. Let me know how you would like to move forward, as time is a serious factor at this point.

(Id. at 73-74). At 4:05 p.m., Dr. Sorge weighed in as well with an email to Plaintiff stating:

To echo what [Roberson] said, we have heard nothing for quite a while and that is troubling. Added to that, [Dr. Amthor], as Director [of the BN program], was not included on these messages and we are unsure that you can even have 8 credit hours of research. Any decision like that should have been ok'd by myself and [Dr. Amthor] before they [sic] were made. I not sure what the best option is, but we want the best for you and your family. With respect to your email, the graduate school handbook says that 1 credit hour of research time is equivalent to 30 hours of in-lab time. Therefore, 8 credit hours would be 240 hours of in-lab time. Coupled with your research assistantship that requires 20 hours a ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.