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Jay v. Auburn University

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division

May 20, 2019

CHARLES A. JAY, Plaintiff,



         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Auburn University's (“Auburn”) motion for summary judgment (Doc. 113), pro-se Plaintiff[1] Charles A. Jay's response in opposition (Doc. 116), and Auburn's reply (Doc. 121). Having duly considered the evidentiary record and the parties' briefs, with no hearing being necessary, the Court deems it proper to GRANT Auburn's motion.

         I. Background [2]

         This case arises from Auburn's election not to hire Jay in 2017 for the position of a Tech I/II at its Rural Studio in Hale County, Alabama. Jay originally filed this action alleging disability discrimination in August 2017, see Doc. 1, and filed the operative Third Amended Complaint in June 2018. Doc. 61. The parties engaged in extensive discovery, and after the close of discovery, Auburn moved for summary judgment on Jay's sole claim alleging violation of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 794 et seq.

         A. Jay's Background and Claimed Disabilities

         Jay has held various jobs, including the founding of a one-man electrical company known as “Dixie Electric, ” and has worked in the general Hale County area as an electrician and handyman from approximately 1992 through 2014. Jay Dep., Doc. 113-1, 56:5-7, 69:8-18. Jay worked as the manager of the Hale County Water Authority from about 1999-2000; he also worked as a self-employed catfish farmer until the mid-2000s. Id. at 89:13-16, 128:22-129:5, 129:16-23. From 2010 through 2014, Jay worked for SunSouth in Demopolis, Alabama in the Parts Department and the Large Equipment Services Department. Id. at 89:6-10.

         In April 2001, Jay fell off a ladder while cutting down a large tree limb on his property and broke his neck. Jay Dep., Doc. 113-1, 104:7-19. Dr. Rick McKenzie performed surgery to repair the damage. Id. at 107:3-13. Jay last saw Dr. McKenzie in April 2016. Id. at 237:7-12. Despite this injury, Jay does not experience substantial limitations to any major life activity. Id. at 161:2-3 (“My neck, I have no problem.”).

         In 2010, Jay fell at home and damaged his left shoulder. Jay Dep., Doc. 113-1, 109:21, 110:15-111:3. Because he did not have insurance at the time, he did not seek medical attention. Id. at 111:6-7. Once he began work at SunSouth and had insurance, Jay saw a doctor for his preexisting shoulder injury. Id. at 111:12-23. Dr. Lucie King performed surgery on Jay in November 2011 to repair a rotator cuff. In surgery, she discovered that many of the tendons had been damaged. Id. at 116:9-19. Jay is able to use his left arm and shoulder without substantial limitations. See Id. at 116:1-6, 160:22-161:5. He has not sought medical treatment or rehabilitation therapy for his shoulder since 2014.[3]

         Jay and his wife Laurie began marriage counseling and individual therapy with Marguerite Malone, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, in January 2004 and continued until their separation in 2006. Jay Dep., Doc. 113-1, 240:3-23. Malone diagnosed Jay with post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). Id. Jay does not take any medication for PTSD and has not sought any additional treatment since 2006. Id. at 265:20-266:2. Jay describes his symptoms of PTSD as “uncontrollable anger” and the feelings he experiences when he believes he has been disrespected. Id. at 285:4-23. Jay has not identified any major life activity that his alleged PTSD substantially limits. Jay noted that he “had gotten good to where I could handle it [the anger] until this lawsuit.” Id. at 286:16-20.

         Despite the injuries he has suffered in the past, Jay is able to care for himself, to walk, to bend, to stand, to climb, to crawl, to learn, to think, to read, to climb stairs, and to perform manual tasks, including labor-intensive tasks. Jay Dep., Doc. 113-1, 220:23-222:23 (“I can do everything, yes, ma'am, I'm normal.”). Jay can dress himself without substantial limitation, Jay Dep., Doc. 121-1, 162:13-23, and can eat without substantial limitation, Jay Dep., Doc. 113-1, 289:22-290:10.

         B. The Rural Studio

         The Rural Studio is an off-campus design-build program of the School of Architecture, Design and Construction of Auburn University. See Freear Decl., Doc. 113-2, ¶ 4. The Rural Studio was founded in 1993 by D.K. Ruth and Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee in Hale County. Id. The program provides Third and Fifth Year architecture students with a hands-on educational experience. The projects focus on sustainability by reimagining, reusing, and remaking building materials. The Rural Studio focuses largely on community-oriented work in the West Alabama Black Belt region. Students, with the guidance of faculty and staff, design and construct housing and community projects. Id. Students are supervised by faculty and staff, including Construction Supervisor Johnny Parker and Tech I/II Mason Hinton. Id. at ¶ 5. Mr. Parker and Mr. Hinton are trained in construction, electricity, plumbing, heavy equipment, welding, and other trade skills to support the Rural Studio projects. They directly supervise and teach the students how to build the designs they have made. In addition, Mr. Parker, Mr. Hinton, and the supporting faculty members ensure the job sites are safe and meet applicable code provisions. Id.

         Beginning in 1993, Jay through Dixie Electric began working as an independent contractor with the Rural Studio, and he worked with Professor Mockbee until approximately 1999. Jay Dep., Doc. 113-1, 70:12-71:9. Jay was never an employee of Auburn or its affiliates. Id. at 84:11-13. Jay and Professor Mockbee cultivated a friendship, and Jay was known to visit Mockbee at the Rural Studio from time to time, even after Jay no longer worked on Rural Studio projects. Freear Decl., Doc. 113-2, ¶ 12.

         Professor Mockbee served as the Director of the Rural Studio until his death in December 2001. Freear Decl., Doc. 113-2, ¶ 12. Professor Mockbee hired Andrew Freear in 2000 as a Visiting Assistant Professor. Professor Freear became the Co-Director of the Rural Studio in 2003. Professor Freear served in this capacity until 2007, when he was made the Director. Id. at ¶ 3. Professor Freear was on sabbatical in Florence, Italy from August 2016 through August 2017. Id. at ¶ 6. He then had a fellowship at Harvard University from August 2017 through May 2018. Id. He resumed his position as the Director in August 2018. Id. During his two-year leave of absence from the Rural Studio, he extracted himself from the day-to-day operations, including any hiring decisions. Id. at ¶ 7. In Professor Freear's absence, Professor Xavier Vendrell assumed the role of Acting Director. Vendrell Decl., Doc. 113-3, ¶ 3.

         C. The Tech I/II Hiring Decision in 2016-2017

         In the fall of 2016, Auburn advertised a vacancy at the Rural Studio for a Tech I/II position. Jay Dep., Doc. 113-1, 147:7-12; Position Announcement, Doc. 113-1, p. 38. The minimum qualifications required “[b]asic knowledge of construction, electrical, and plumbing codes and [the] ability to perform construction, plumbing, [and] electrical jobs” as well as the “ability to operate heavy equipment.” Position Announcement, Doc. 113-1, p. 38. The desired qualifications “include the ability to resolve routine problems independently and provide instruction to students on construction techniques[.]” Id.

         Auburn followed its general procedure for filling this vacancy. Vendrell Decl., Doc. 113-3, ¶ 5. The Office of Human Resources reviews the “application and supporting documentation to assess whether the potential candidate meets the posted minimum qualifications for the job.” Thompson Decl., Doc. 113-4, ¶ 5. If the applicant passes this first stage, the application materials are sent for review to those responsible for the hire in the department filling the position. Id.

         Jay applied for the Tech I/II position in December 2016. Jay Dep., Doc. 113-1, 167:2- 13. On his application, he listed three prior jobs for his work experience: (1) self-employed catfish farmer, (2) tractor mechanic at SunSouth, and (3) electrician, plumber, and “Sambo Assistant” for Auburn. Id. at 166; Jay Application, Doc. 113-1, p. 40. He did not list any specific job duties for any of these jobs and did not detail the basis for his qualifications or his experience. See Jay Application, Doc. 113-1, pp. 39-42. Jay also did not list any individual references for Auburn to contact and instead broadly stated his references as “Rural Studio affiliates 94-99.” Id. at p. 41. The only individual named on his entire application was Sambo Mockbee, who had been deceased for 15 years. Id.

         As part of the application process, Jay voluntarily self-identified as “disabled.” Jay Dep., Doc. 113-1, 198-99; Voluntary Demographic Information, Doc. 113-1, p. 43. This information is kept separate from the application. Id. Only the Office of Human Resources and Auburn's Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Office have access to an applicant's voluntary demographic information. Thompson Decl., Doc. 113-4, ¶ 6. The faculty and staff in the department conducting a search, including at the Rural Studio, do not ever have access to the self-identifying demographic information for applicants to positions within the department. Id.

         After Auburn's Office of Human Resources determined Jay met the minimum qualifications for the Tech I/II position, his application was forwarded to the search committee at the Rural Studio. Once Jay received notification that his application had entered the next stage, he called the Office of Human Resources in Auburn and spoke with Chris Thompson, Manger of Employment Administration. Thompson Decl., Doc. 113-4, ¶ 9. During that phone call, Jay informed Mr. Thompson that he received disability benefits, but Jay never indicated what his disability was and did not ask for any accommodation or assistance with the application process. Id.; see also Jay Dep., Doc. 113-1, 169:9-19, 182:5-13; Jay Dep., Doc. 121-1, 171:13-172:11. Because Jay did not request assistance or an accommodation (or indicate any was needed), no action was required outside Human Resource's usual processing of applications. Thompson Decl., Doc. 113-4, ¶ 9.

         Because the new employee in the Tech I/II role would report to Johnny Parker, the Construction Supervisor, Mr. Parker participated in the search process. Parker Decl., Doc. 113-5, ¶ 6. Mr. Parker and Professor Vendrell individually reviewed each application they received from Auburn's Human Resources office. Vendrell Decl., Doc. 113-3, ¶ 5. In total, they reviewed six applications, including Jay's. Id.

         After independently reviewing the applications, Professor Vendrell and Mr. Parker met and conferred to decide who to interview. Vendrell Decl., Doc. 113-5, ¶ 5. They mutually selected three applicants to be interviewed but did not select Jay. Id. at ¶¶ 5-6. Professor Vendrell and Mr. Parker agreed that Jay's application did not demonstrate that he had relevant experience. Id. at ¶ 6. They also were unable to contact any references. Id.; see also Parker Decl., Doc. 113-5, ¶ 8.

         Professor Vendrell did not know Jay at the time of the hiring process. Vendrell Decl., Doc. 113-3, ¶ 8. He had no knowledge that Jay had self-identified as disabled. Id. Mr. Parker had met Jay around Newbern but did not know that Jay self-identified as disabled in 2016. Parker Decl., Doc. 113-5, ¶ 10. Jay, however, contends that at some time prior to his 2016 application, he told Mr. Parker about his disability. See Jay Dep., Doc. 113-1, 269:22-270:1 (“…and Johnny Parker knows I'm disabled. I've talked to him on several occasion.”), 276:11-20.[4]

         Four Rural Studio employees participated in the interviews of the top three candidates: Professor Vendrell; Mr. Parker; Mr. Edward “Rusty” Smith, the Associate Director of the Rural Studio; and Mr. Stephen Long, an Instructor with the Rural Studio. Vendrell Decl., Doc. 113-3, ¶ 9.[5] The search committee determined that Mason Hinton was the best candidate for the Tech I/II position because of his relevant work experience and because of his educational credentials, which indicated his ability to take on and learn additional skills. Id. Mr. Hinton accepted the job and continues to work at the Rural Studio. Id.

         II. ...

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