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Studdard v. Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University

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

May 21, 2019

NAREATHA L. STUDDARD, Plaintiff,
v.
ALABAMA AGRICULTURAL & MECHANICAL UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          LILES C. BURKE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Nareatha L. Studdard - a former associate professor at Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University (“Alabama A&M”) - alleges that she was retaliated against for exercising rights guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”) . In particular, plaintiff claims that she suffered an adverse employment action when certain defendants refused to forward her 2012 tenure application for review, when it would have been evaluated under less stringent standards, and simultaneously requested an extension of her probationary period. Plaintiff alleges this action caused her to have to submit her tenure application the next year, when it was subjected to more stringent criteria, and that this resulted in the denial of tenure and ultimately her termination from Alabama A&M.

         As described in more detail below, the remaining defendants in this action filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 112), along with a supporting brief and evidentiary submission. Plaintiff filed a response (doc. 123), which the Court ordered plaintiff to reformat (see doc. 133 (reformatted response)). The remaining defendants then filed a reply (doc. 129). Therefore, the Motion for Summary Judgment is ready for review. For the reasons discussed in this memorandum opinion, the Court will grant the Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff initiated this action on August 5, 2015, against several defendants. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff later amended her complaint (doc. 79). Plaintiff's amended complaint alleges one count of F MLA retaliation. Plaintiff appears to bring this count against defendants (1) Alabama A&M; (2) the Board of Trustees of Alabama A&M (the “Board”); (3) former governor and president of the Board, Robert Bentley (“Bentley”) in his official capacity; (4) individual members of the Board Kevin Ball, Ginger Harper, John O. Hudson, III, James D. Montgomery, Sr., Dr. Hattie N. Myles, Chris Robinson, Andre Taylor, Velma J. Tribue, and Dr. Jerome Williams in their official capacities (collectively, “the Trustees”); (5) provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, Dr. Daniel Wims (“Dr. Wims”), in his official and individual capacity; (6) president of Alabama A&M, Dr. Andrew Hugine, Jr. (“Dr. Hugine”), in his official and individual capacity; (7) dean of the College of Business and Public Affairs, Dr. Delmonize Smith (“Dr. Smith”), in his official capacity and as successor to the former dean, Dr. Amin Sarkar; and (8) the chairman of the Department of Management, Marketing, and Logistics[1], Larry McDaniel (“Dr. McDaniel”), in his individual and official capacity. (Doc. 79, pp. 2-3).[2]

         Following the filing of the amended complaint, several motions to dismiss (docs. 80 and 81) were filed. Before the Court addressed the motions to dismiss, plaintiff voluntarily dismissed Bentley and the Trustees. (Docs. 85, 86). On March 31, 2017, the Court issued a memorandum opinion (doc. 91) addressing one of the motions to dismiss (doc. 80); the other motion to dismiss (doc. 81) was denied as moot.[3] In particular, the Court dismissed Alabama A&M, the Board, and Dr. Hugine, Dr. Wims, and Dr. McDaniel in their individual capacities. (Id. at 20). The Court denied the motion to dismiss (doc. 80) to the extent that it requested dismissal of the official-capacity claims against Dr. Hugine, Dr. Wims, Dr. Smith, and Dr. McDaniel for injunctive relief. (Id.). Therefore, at this juncture, the FMLA retaliation claim exists against Dr. Hugine, Dr. Wims, Dr. Smith, and Dr. McDaniel in their official capacities solely for injunctive relief. The Court will refer to these three defendants as “the remaining defendants.”

         With respect to the following facts, the Court accepts, as true, any fact not expressly disputed by either party. (Doc. 131; Doc. 133, p. 7 n.1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a) (“The court shall grant summary judgment if . . . there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact . . . .”).

         A. Plaintiff begins her employment at Alabama A&M

         From 2004 to 2009, plaintiff was employed as an assistant professor at Arkansas State University. (Doc. 79, p. 7; Doc. 112-10, p. 23 (Studdard Dep., p. 88, lines 4-10); Doc. 124-18, p. 25 (Studdard Aff., Ex. A)). In late 2008 or early 2009, plaintiff ran into Dr. McDaniel, who had been a professor of hers while she was a student at Alabama A&M, at a continuing education event. (Doc. 124-18, p. 11 (Studdard Aff., ¶ 27)). Dr. McDaniel encouraged plaintiff to apply for an associate professor opening in his department at Alabama A&M. (Id.). Dr. McDaniel was (and still is) the chair of the Department of Management, Marketing, and Logistics in the College of Business at Alabama A&M. (Doc. 112-1, p. 13; Doc. 112-17, p. 2 (McDaniel Aff. ¶ 2)). As a result of her encounter with Dr. McDaniel, plaintiff applied for the position at Alabama A&M and was appointed as an associate professor, a tenure track position, in August 2009. (Doc. 79, p. 7; Doc. 112-1, p. 12; Doc. 112-10, p. 72 (Studdard Dep., p. 282, lines 8-11)).

         At the time that plaintiff applied for the position at Alabama A&M, she knew that she would not be approved for tenure at Arkansas State University. (Doc. 112-10, p. 24 (Studdard Dep., p. 91, lines 7-16)). Plaintiff has testified that, in prior years at Arkansas State University, she had been on track for tenure; however, in her fourth year, she received notification that she was not on track for tenure. (Doc. 112-10, p. 25 (Studdard Dep., p. 94, lines 6-14)). Plaintiff states that this was not the reason that she applied for the position at Alabama A&M. Rather, plaintiff wanted to teach at a historically black university and be closer to her mother, among other things. (Doc. 112-10, p. 28 (Studdard Dep., p. 106, line 10 - p. 107, line 7)).

         B. Description of remaining defendants

         Dr. Hugine is the president of Alabama A&M and has been in that position since July 2009. (Doc. 79, p. 6; Doc. 112-1, pp. 12-13). Dr. Hugine is responsible for making the final decision with respect to granting tenure to faculty members. (Doc. 112-1, p. 13; Doc. 112-10, p. 16 (Studdard Dep., p. 59, lines 17-20)).

         Dr. Wims is the provost and vice president for Academic Affairs and Research. (Doc. 112-1, p. 13). Dr. Wims has been in that position since April 2010. (Doc. 112-15, p. 2 (Wims Aff., ¶ 2)). Dr. Wims provides administration oversight for the divisions of Academic Affairs and Research at Alabama A&M. (Doc. 112-1, p. 13; Doc. 112-15, p. 2 (Wims Aff., ¶ 3)). Part of Dr. Wims's duties includes reminding faculty members of their deadlines to apply for tenure. (Doc. 112-1, p. 13; Doc. 112-15, pp. 2-3 (Wims Aff., ¶ 3); Doc. 112-10, p. 21 (Studdard Dep., p. 79, lines 11-16)). Dr. Wims also provides recommendations to Dr. Hugine regarding whether tenure applicants should receive tenure. (Doc. 112-1, p. 13; Doc. 112-15, pp. 2-3 (Wims Aff., ¶ 3); Doc. 112-10, p. 19 (Studdard Dep., p. 71, lines 8-15)). Dr. Wims was not plaintiff's direct supervisor. (Doc. 112-10, p. 22 (Studdard Dep., p. 82, lines 2-5)).

         Dr. McDaniel is the chair of the Department of Management, Marketing, and Logistics in the College of Business. (Doc. 112-1, p. 13; Doc. 112-17, p. 2 (McDaniel Aff., ¶ 2)). Dr. McDaniel's responsibilities include providing evaluations of faculty members and participating in the submission of tenure materials for faculty members in his department. (Doc. 112-1, p. 14; Doc. 112-17, pp. 2-3 (McDaniel Aff., ¶ 3)).

         Dr. Smith is the current dean of the College of Business and Public Affairs. (Doc. 79, ¶ 9; Doc. 112-1, p. 14). Dr. Smith's predecessor was Dr. Sarkar, who was, as described below, involved in some of the events at issue in this lawsuit. (Id.).

         C. 2003 Faculty Handbook and 2011 Faculty Handbook

          When plaintiff was hired at Alabama A&M, the 2003 Faculty Handbook was in effect. (Doc. 112-10, p. 68 (Studdard Dep., p. 267, lines 2-22)). Under the 2003 Faculty Handbook, a person appointed as an associate professor would serve a probationary term of three academic years. (Doc. 112-15, pp. 40, 60 (Wims Aff., Ex. 1)). The 2003 Faculty Handbook stated that a faculty member may submit an application for tenure in the fall semester of the final year of the required period for a certain rank. (Doc. 112-15, p. 61 (Wims Aff., Ex. 1)). Thus, it appears that an associate professor would apply for tenure in the fall of the third year of his or her probationary period. The probationary period could be extended upon written justification requested by the dean and department chair and approved by the vice president for Academic Affairs. (Doc. 112-15, p. 60 (Wims Aff., Ex. 1)). If tenure was denied, then the faculty member would be given a one-year notice of termination of service. (Doc. 112-15, p. 61 (Wims Aff., Ex. 1)). The requirements for tenure under the 2003 Faculty Handbook were as follows:

A. Letter of application B. At least two letters of recommendations from immediate supervisors, chair, and dean.
C. Current curriculum vita.
D. Verification of years of service by the Office of Human Resources.
E. A minimum of last three years of continuous membership in a professional society in discipline.
F. Teaching Portfolio Containing:
1. Course outlines, faculty evaluations, student evaluations for all courses taught.
2. Development of innovative pedagogical methods and materials, new courses, major revisions in old courses, etc.
3. Professional development to enhance teaching effectiveness.
G. Scholarly Activities
Publication in refereed journals, scholarly books, chapters in scholarly books, research reports, attendance at scientific/professional meetings, reviewer for journal, proposals, creative works, etc. related to the discipline.
Service
Evidence of: Service to the university by being member/chair of various committees, any administrative role at the university. Chair of graduate thesis dissertation committees, service on student advisory committees, service as a mentor for students/research.
Evidence of: Service to the public and community.

(Doc. 112-15, pp. 61-62 (Wims Aff., Ex. 1) (emphasis added)).

         The 2003 Faculty Handbook was later amended and became the 2011 Faculty Handbook. Under the 2011 Faculty Handbook, the probationary term for an associate professor was increased to four academic years. (Doc. 112-16, pp. 45, 74 (Wims Aff., Ex. 2)). By Ap ril 1st of the third probationary year, the Office of Academic Affairs would notify the candidate of the requirement to apply for tenure in the next academic year. (Doc. 112-16, pp. 45-46 (Wims Aff., Ex. 2)). According to the 2011 Faculty Handbook, “[f]aculty not recommended for tenure [would] be notified that their next year will be their terminal year.” (Doc. 112-16, p. 46 (Wims Aff., Ex. 2)). Similar to the 2003 Faculty Handbook, the probationary period could be extended upon written recommendation and justification by the dean and the department chair and approved by the provost and vice president of Academic Affairs. (Doc. 112-16, p. 74 (Wims Aff., Ex. 2)).

         The requirements for the 2011 Faculty Handbook were as follows:

A. A Letter of Application;
B. At least two letters of recommendation from immediate supervisors (i.e., chair and dean);
C. The weights given to each of the three areas of faculty responsibility (teaching, research and service (extension);
D. A current curriculum vitae;
E. Verification of years of service and probationary period by the Office of Human Resources;
F. Documentation of continuous membership in a professional learned society to include the last three years at a minimum;
G. Teaching/Advisement Portfolio containing:
1. Course syllabi reflecting student learning outcomes and course objectives, faculty evaluations, and student evaluations for all courses taught from the last three years;
2. Demonstration of the use of innovative pedagogical methods and materials such as development of new courses, infusion of technology into the instructional program, major revision and updating of courses to reflect changes in the field;
3. Attendance at professional development activities designed to improve teaching effectiveness;
4. Successful student advisement and mentoring practices;
5. Assessment of student learning and efforts to modify courses based ...

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