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Ducksworth v. Strayer University, Inc.

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

April 29, 2019

AMANDA DUCKSWORTH, Plaintiff,
v.
STRAYER UNIVERSITY, INC. Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          John E. Ott, Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         This is an employment discrimination case. In it, the Plaintiff, Dr. Amanda Ducksworth, claims that her former employer, Defendant Strayer University, Inc. (“Strayer”) is liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 for unlawful race discrimination and retaliation in the termination of her employment. (Doc.[1] 1). The cause now comes to be heard on Strayer's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 62). Upon consideration, 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 evidence, 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]

         Plaintiff is African-American. In 2012, she began working for Strayer, a corporation that operates Strayer University, a private, for-profit education institution with campuses throughout the country. In late January 2014, she was promoted to Campus Dean of Strayer's campus in Huntsville, Alabama. Initially, her supervisors were Dr. Ulysses Weakley and Dr. Kimberly Pierre, both of whom are also African-American. In April 2015, Dr. Ronna Campbell, who is white, assumed responsibility over Strayer's Georgia-Alabama-Louisiana region that included the Huntsville campus and thereby became Plaintiff's supervisor. Dr. Campbell, in turn, reported to Strayer's Senior Vice Provost, Chandra Quaye, who is African-American. Plaintiff's claims in this action focus on her discharge, which occurred on September 3, 2015, when Quaye, acting on a recommendation from Dr. Campbell, approved the termination of Plaintiff's employment for alleged job deficiencies and misconduct.

         Plaintiff's performance review for 2014, her first year as Campus Dean, was completed before Dr. Campbell became her supervisor. On that review, Plaintiff received an overall score of “7” out of a possible “10, ” translating to a “good performer” who “frequently meets expectations.” (See Doc. 63-22 at 9). Plaintiff suggests that rating was “very high[ ].” (Doc.65 at 3). However, it was not, in fact, particularly so as compared to those of her peers, as seen in a ranking that Quaye prepared in the spring of 2015 of the deans of the Strayer campuses. (Doc. 63-12). Plaintiff's 2014 supervisor review score left her in a six-way tie for 59th out of 82 Strayer campus deans nationwide, and Quaye ultimately ranked Plaintiff 66th overall, placing her in the bottom 20%. (Id.)

         While Plaintiff says she had a good relationship with Drs. Weakley and Pierre, she acknowledges her dealings with Dr. Campbell were rockier. Generally speaking, Plaintiff perceived Dr. Campbell to be “hostile” and “intimidating” in their interactions, based on her “tone, ” “facial expressions, ” and “choice of words.” choice.” (Doc. 63-11, Plaintiff's Deposition (“Pl. Dep.”) at 110-11). Plaintiff does not claim, however, that Dr. Campbell ever used language referring to race. Nevertheless, Plaintiff believes that Dr. Campbell did not like working with her and that, when Dr. Campbell wanted to discuss matters related to the Huntsville Campus, she eventually would instead consistently communicate with its Campus Director, Julie Pryor, who ran the operations side of campus administration and who, like Dr. Campbell, is white.

         Soon after taking over as Plaintiff's boss, Dr. Campbell indicated in a number of emails with Plaintiff that she had issues with Plaintiff's understanding of Strayer's academic policies, procedures, and records system in various respects. The first of these appears to have been related to an exchange on April 10, 2015. There, Plaintiff sent an email to Dr. Campbell for the purpose of “giving [her] a heads up” that Plaintiff would be sending her thirteen “change of attendance cases” because a marketing instructor had submitted attendance incorrectly for a night class. (Doc. 63-18). Campbell was confused by Plaintiff's missive, to which she responded, “Was this a class last term? Why would we be processing cases now?” (Id.) This was because, according to Dr. Campbell, the attendance changes did not require her approval at all, per instructions on the applicable form itself. (Doc. 63-13, Campbell Declaration (“Campbell Decl.”) ¶ 5(G). Plaintiff was unable to identify any policy contrary to Dr. Campbell's claimed understanding that her approval was not actually required in that instance, although Plaintiff further suggests that this episode was example of where the applicable policy had changed. (Pl. Dep. at 304-08, 425).

         A few days later, on April 15, 2015, Dr. Campbell advised Plaintiff that Strayer's records system indicated that there was a serious lack of required “advising” of “at risk” students at the Huntsville Campus for the winter term, a function to be overseen by Plaintiff as the campus dean. (Doc. 63-5). That email included a chart showing that, for the other ten campuses in the region, there were a total of 2, 305 documented “at risk” students, all but 4 of whom had been advised as required. By contrast, the Huntsville Campus had 100 “at risk students, ” 47 of whom had not been advised. (Id.) Plaintiff replied that it was her understanding that all at-risk students on the Huntsville Campus had, in fact, been advised. (Id.) Plaintiff further offered that she would have to run the report to understand what had happened, though she suggested that the adjunct faculty members retained to do advising might have erred in entering the required data. (Id.) Dr. Campbell later opined that Plaintiff had failed to keep up with the issue because she “was not posting comments as required” in the system. (Campbell Decl. ¶ 5(F)). For her part, Plaintiff acknowledges that she was not aware of any documented deficiency prior to Dr. Campbell's email because she had not run the relevant report on the system. However, Plaintiff claims that the students were, in fact, properly advised, but her faculty had not entered the proper information and coding in the system. (Pl. Dep. at 408-12).

         On April 27, 2015, Dr. Campbell sent another email to Plaintiff, requesting that she “advise ASAP” on a student grade change that appeared to be weeks overdue for processing and asking Plaintiff whether she had submitted a “case” for the change. (Doc. 63-20). Plaintiff answered that she had not, stating simply that she was waiting on a response from the class instructor. (Id.) Dr. Campbell, however, claims that Plaintiff was dilatory in failing to follow up with the instructor for several weeks, as well as by failing to timely close the matter for several days after being contacted by student affairs, thus requiring Dr. Campbell to become involved. (See id.; Campbell Decl. ¶ 5(I)). When asked about the episode, Plaintiff was unable to recall details, although she believed she had taken appropriate action by contacting the instructor and waiting on his response. (Pl. Dep. at 310-15).

         One month later, Dr. Campbell sent an email to Plaintiff asking why a certain class at the Huntsville campus had been reopened despite not having the required minimum student enrollment. (Doc. 63-13). Specifically, Dr. Campbell noted that all classes with less than five students were to have been removed from the schedule by the preceding week, while the class at issue had only three students and had been reopened without prior approval from her or from scheduling. (Id.; see also Campbell Decl. ¶ 5(H)). Plaintiff responded to the email by expressly taking “responsibility” for having reopened the class, explaining that she and Pryor had discussed “how critical the class was for new students, ” so she “took the risk of making the class available … rather than having to turn students away for the summer because [they] did not have enough first level classes on schedule for the summer.” (Id.) Plaintiff does not dispute that under Strayer policy, she could not reopen the class without first getting approval because it did not have the minimum number of students (Pl. Dep. at 319), although she suggests that Dr. Campbell “may not have had all the information” about the class at the time she sent her email. (Id. at 317).

         Two days later, on May 29, 2015, Dr. Campbell sent Plaintiff another email, this time regarding expense reports more than 90 days old. (Campbell Decl. ¶ 5(J)); Pl. Dep. at 428-29). To that, Plaintiff explained that she “generally” submitted her expense reports on time. (Pl. Dep. at 428-29). However, she also acknowledges that “there may have been some” that she did not, because, she says, “there were several things going on with [her] having been out of the office.” (Id.)

         On Monday, June 1, 2015, Strayer received a complaint about Plaintiff from Jessica Jackson, an African-American woman working in the student final aid office at the Huntsville campus. (See Doc. 63-3; Doc. 63-13 at 14-16). Jackson there related that she had received a text message the day before in which Plaintiff, to whom she did not report, had essentially told Jackson she was acting unprofessionally and warned that she was putting her job at risk by challenging Pryor's authority as campus director. Jackson apparently took the text message as inappropriate and interpreted it as having threatened her employment. A representative of Strayer's Human Resources Department investigated Jackson's complaint and called Plaintiff. With Dr. Campbell participating in the interview, Plaintiff initially denied having sent the text message to Jackson. Thereafter, however, Plaintiff admitted that she had, in fact, sent it. (See Pl. Dep. at 339-53). On July 9, 2015, Dr. Campbell traveled to the Huntsville campus and met with Plaintiff to discuss several alleged performance issues. (See Doc. 63-3; Doc. 63-13 at 14-16). That meeting was conceived in part specifically to address Plaintiff's text message to Jackson. (Id.) Dr. Campbell thereafter criticized Plaintiff for not being “forthcoming regarding the text message” and recognized that “conveying information to an employee regarding their job performance/conduct via text message is not appropriate, regardless of [her] relationship with an employee.” (Doc. 63-3). Plaintiff further acknowledges that, in their discussion, Dr. Campbell indicated that Plaintiff's dishonesty had been a breach of loyalty, going so far as to tell Plaintiff, “When you've done something like that, your time is up.” (Pl. Dep. at 350-51).

         At the meeting on July 9th, Dr. Campbell also addressed another issue again involving Jackson. On June 30, 2015, Jackson had sent a group email to the other members of the Huntsville campus administration team, comprised of Plaintiff, Pryor, Admissions Officers Hayes and Bartlett, Campus Coordinator Shana Upton, and Librarian Dennis Borden. (Doc. 63-10). Jackson asked the recipients how they would feel about participating in a “short team building exercise” at their daily “stand up” meeting, based on an exercise Jackson had done with her team a few years earlier. (Id.) Plaintiff responded with a “reply all” email, telling Jackson that while her idea was “commendable, ” “[t]eam building exercises require time, planning, and respect for all team members.” (Id.) Plaintiff concluded her response by rejecting Jackson's suggestion, stating, “It is more appropriate for the Campus Dean or the Campus Director to lead the campus in effective team building.” (Id.) Upon reviewing the situation, however, Dr. Campbell told Plaintiff she was displeased with her response. Dr. Campbell conveyed, rather, that she believed Jackson was showing initiative and that Plaintiff had effectively chastised her for it in front of all team members, thereby “undermin[ing] the hard work underway in building a collaborative, innovative culture where everyone is encouraged to contribute.” (Doc. 63-3 at 3).

         Dr. Campbell also told Plaintiff during the meeting that, based on her attendance at a campus meeting and feedback from the Huntsville administration team, Dr. Campbell believed they were not responding positively to Plaintiff's leadership and did not respect or like working with her. (Id.) According to Plaintiff, Dr. Campbell first told her that Teri Jaggers, a Strayer regional operations manager and a white female, had related seeing Upton, the Campus Coordinator and also a white female, roll her eyes when Plaintiff was speaking at a meeting. Dr. Campbell also related that the two Admissions Officers, Hayes and Bartlett, both of whom are African-American, felt like Plaintiff “talked down” to them. (Pl. Dep. at 45-47, 80, 84-85).

         According to Plaintiff's summary judgment affidavit, at their on-campus meeting on July 9th, she complained to Dr. Campbell about what she believed was an instance of employment discrimination based on race. Specifically, Plaintiff claims in her affidavit that she “explicitly” raised “concerns” that the promotion of Pryor to the Campus Director position earlier that spring had been racially discriminatory and had been at the expense of other more qualified potential candidates, including Admissions Officer Bartlett. (Doc. 65-1, Plaintiff's Affidavit “Pl. Aff.”) ¶ 10). As discussed later herein, Strayer has moved to strike that testimony, arguing that it contradicts Plaintiff's earlier sworn statements in her deposition. And for her part, Dr. Campbell denies that Plaintiff raised any complaints or concerns at the July 9th meeting about Pryor's selection, whether in relation to race discrimination or otherwise. (See Doc. 63-13, Campbell Aff., ¶¶ 10-16).

         In any event, on July 13, 2015, Dr. Campbell sent a follow up email to Plaintiff. (Doc. 63-3 at 2-3). In it, Dr. Campbell referenced the meeting and reiterated that she was “concerned about [Plaintiff's] management judgement [sic] and leadership.” In it, Dr. Campbell makes no acknowledgement that Plaintiff had raised concerns about race discrimination generally or as it might relate to Pryor's selection specifically. Rather, Dr. Campbell recited her disappointment with Plaintiff's text message to Jackson and her subsequent dishonesty about having sent it, as well as with Plaintiff's discouraging email response to Jackson's proposed team-building exercise. Dr. Campbell also stated her perception that Huntsville administration team members did not like working with Plaintiff.

         Finally, Dr. Campbell's email concluded:

The Campus Dean serves as Senior Academic Officer at a designated Strayer University campus location and is responsible for ensuring academic quality at that campus in cooperation with the Campus Director. It is expected that you take a lead in creating a positive culture at the Huntsville Campus. In addition, it is critical that you work collaboratively with the Campus Director, Student Financial Services and Student Academic Services to develop a team that fosters growth and accountability.
Further concerns regarding your leadership of the campus will result in removal from the Campus Dean role.

(Doc. 63-3 at 3).

         Several hours later, Plaintiff sent Dr. Campbell a reply email, attaching a three-page, single-spaced letter in which Plaintiff sought to defend her actions and record as Campus Dean. (Doc. 63-3 at 4-6). In a section of the letter, Plaintiff addressed her interactions with Hayes and Bartlett, who Dr. Campbell had identified as having expressed that Plaintiff “talked down” to them. In responding, Plaintiff never mentioned race, although she did touch on Pryor's hire as Campus Director, as follows:

The current admissions pilot process requires minimal interaction with the Admissions Officers (AOs). The AOs bring new students to my office to meet me when they interview on campus. Julie Pryor, Justin Bartlett, and Ken[a] Hayes, are always responsive and professional in their interaction with me. When I notice awkward statements from Justin or Kena at our daily standup/huddle meetings, I inquired with Julie. Julie has explained Justin feels like he has been treated unfairly and he is trying to leave. According to Julie, her assignment to the Campus Director position without consideration of other candidates created tension on her team. Members of her team have expressed concerns to me of what they perceived as unfair and bias. As students and employees some expressed concerns about being allowed to complete the NPS [Net Promoter Scores] survey with their honest views. As a result of these factors, tensions are high in Admissions, morale is down, and team members have a negative view of how decisions are made. It is my understanding that Julie Pryor and Teri Jaggers are addressing these concerns.

(Doc. 63-3 at 3).

         About two weeks later, on July 24, 2015, Dr. Campbell completed Plaintiff's 2015 mid-year performance review. (Doc. 63-22). It was not a favorable one, to say the least. Whereas Plaintiff last supervisor had given her an overall score of 7 out of 10 on her 2014 evaluation, Dr. Campbell's mid-year 2015 review yielded an overall score of just 2.9. That put Plaintiff at the bottom of nine campus deans Dr. Campbell rated at the time, whose average score, without Plaintiff, was 6.8. (Doc. 63-7). It appears that Dr. Campbell presented the evaluation to Plaintiff and reviewed it with her at an on-campus meeting on or about August 4, 2015. In the comments section of the evaluation, Dr. Campbell included the following remarks on her ratings for Plaintiff:

Overall Dr. Ducksworth's key strength is her care and concern for her students and the campus NPS scores in 2015 reflect her strong student customer service focus. The key areas of opportunity are in knowledge and systems proficiency and in leadership. Both are areas of serious concern needing rapid improvement.
SMART Goal 1 [Customer Service, rating: 7]: Overall good and NPS [Net Promotor Score][4] is key area of strength. Case handling accuracy and responsiveness to other stakeholders are key areas of opportunity.
SMART Goal 2 [Academic Excellence, rating 3]: Improvement needed as bottom 10% scores for individual teaching dashboard results in 2015. Transferring knowledge and proficiency is another area of opportunity for improvement.
SMART Goal 3 [Advising and Scheduling, rating: 2]: Improvement has been required in this area. For example midterm at risk advising was not completed for winter term. New student advising comment entry was not handled appropriately and ...

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