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Vernon v. Central Alabama Community College

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

May 28, 2019

S. MARIE VERNON, Plaintiff,
v.
CENTRAL ALABAMA COMMUNITY COLLEGE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ANNEMARIE CARNEY AXON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on Defendant Central Alabama Community College's (“CACC”) motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 39).

         Plaintiff S. Marie Vernon worked for CACC as the Director of Accounting from January 2014 until July 2016. Ms. Vernon alleges that CACC terminated her employment because she is female. The remaining claim in this action is one for gender discrimination under Title VII against CACC. (See Docs. 13, 19, 26).

         As explained below, Ms. Vernon has not demonstrated that CACC's legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating her employment is pretext for unlawful gender discrimination, and she has not presented other circumstantial evidence from which a jury could infer that gender animus motivated her termination. Therefore, the court WILL GRANT CACC's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On a motion for summary judgment, the court “draw[s] all inferences and review[s] all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Hamilton v. Southland Christian Sch., Inc., 680 F.3d 1316, 1318 (11th Cir. 2012) (quotation marks omitted).

         CACC is one of 24 institutions that comprise the Alabama Community College System. (Doc. 40 at 3, ¶ 2). Dr. Susan Burrow was appointed as Interim President of CACC on February 26, 2013, and she was confirmed President in October 2015. (Doc. 40 at 3, ¶ 1). On January 2, 2014, Dr. Burrow hired Ms. Vernon as CACC's Director of Accounting. (Doc. 40 at 4, ¶ 4; Doc. 40-9 at 12; Doc. 40-10 at 1). Ms. Vernon worked in CACC's business office, where she supervised nine employees. (Doc. 40 at 4, ¶ 6; Doc. 44-2 at ¶ 3; Doc. 44-4 at 37). Ms. Vernon reported directly to Richard Hawkshead, CACC's Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. (Doc. 40 at 4, ¶ 6; Doc. 40-10 at 1).

         When Ms. Vernon arrived at CACC, the business office was undergoing “a major overhaul and a rebuilding and rehabilitation process” in light of a November 2012 audit report from the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts. (Doc. 44-5 at 9). Employees in the business office were “unhappy, ” and Dr. Burrow admits that Ms. Vernon was placed in a “challenging situation.” (Doc. 44-4 at 15). According to Ms. Vernon, she inherited a “disgruntled staff” (doc. 40-11 at 7), and “a business office culture that was toxic, recalcitrant, insubordinate, and absent” (doc. 44-2 at ¶ 6). Ms. Vernon claims that every time she attempted to document problems with staff, Mr. Hawkshead and Dr. Burrow “wanted [the] office to complete the financial statements and then address the difficult staff.” (Doc. 44-2 at ¶ 16; see also Id. at ¶ 17). Despite challenges with her staff, Ms. Vernon helped improve CACC's financial reporting. (Doc. 44-2 at ¶¶ 18-19; see Doc. 40-5 at 2, 7).

         On February 16, 2015, Mr. Hawkshead completed an annual evaluation for Ms. Vernon. (Doc. 40-5 at 2-4). Mr. Hawkshead evaluated Ms. Vernon in a number of individual categories and provided a numerical ranking between 0 and 5 for each category. (Id.). Mr. Hawkshead found that Ms. Vernon “consistently excels in job performance” or “performs at a level above job requirements” in a number of categories, including quality of work, quantity/efficiency of work, initiative, dependability, and attendance. (Id. at 2-3). Mr. Hawkshead indicated that Ms. Vernon needed improvement in the areas of areas of decision-making, attitude, and communication skills. (Doc. 40-5 at 2-3; Doc. 40-1 at 4-7).

         With respect to decision-making, Mr. Hawkshead noted that

[g]enerally, Marie makes good judgment calls based on her knowledge and I have the utmost confidence in her but as a first time middle manager is still struggling to find the right balance in making decisions when dealing with staff. She is sometimes overzealous in her attempts to control her staff which can be counter-productive and stressful (for both her and her staff).

(Doc. 40-5 at 2).

         Concerning Ms. Vernon's attitude, Mr. Hawkshead stated that “Marie has struggled with some undependable and uncooperative staff that sometimes negatively impacts her attitude, however the stressful environment and workload also affects her ability to maintain a positive mental attitude.” (Doc. 40-5 at 3). Mr. Hawkshead explained that Ms. Vernon communicated effectively with most personnel, but he commented that she “is frustrated by staff which is reflected in her communication style and impacts her ability to maintain a smooth and composed conversation.” (Id.). Mr. Hawkshead also stated that Ms. Vernon's “desire to control and related emotions sometimes get the best of her and is occasionally reflected in her communication style.” (Id.).

         On November 4, 2015, Dr. Burrow and CACC Human Resources Director, Tina Shaw, discussed CACC staff complaints about Mr. Hawkshead and Ms. Vernon. (Doc. 40 at 6-7, ¶ 12; see Doc. 40-5 at 5-6). Ms. Shaw's notes from the meeting indicate that employees expressed a number of concerns regarding Mr. Hawkshead's and Ms. Vernon's leadership of the CACC business office. (See Doc. 40-5 at 5-6).

         Relevant to Ms. Vernon's claim in this case, Ms. Shaw's notes state that Mr. Hawkshead engaged in the following conduct that employees reported as offensive:

• Rubbing necks and touching backs of some staff members
• Stating “What's wrong with ----, she got crotch rocket?”
• Stating “Marie doesn't date, she needs to get her a sugar daddy”
• Stating “You are going to blind somebody with those rhinestones ...

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