United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
E. Ott, Chief United States Magistrate Judge.
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). The
cause now comes to be heard on Strayer's motion for
summary judgment. (Doc. 62). Upon consideration, the
concludes that the motion is due to be granted.
SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS
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.
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).
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.
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.)
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.
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,
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).
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).
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).
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.”
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.
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
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).
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).
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.
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).
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).
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
SMART Goal 1 [Customer Service, rating: 7]: Overall good and
NPS [Net Promotor Score] 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 ...