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Jurriaans v. Alabama Cooperative Extension System

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

June 26, 2019



          W. Keith Watkins United States District Judge.

         Wanda Jurriaans worked for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) for fifty-one years. But after a complaint from a local government official, ACES investigated Jurriaans and concluded that she had “seriously strained” relationships with government officials and her colleagues. This came on the heels of a performance evaluation that criticized her for “inconsistent” performance and leadership. ACES fired Jurriaans and replaced her with a man in his fifties. Jurriaans claims she is a victim of age discrimination and retaliation. But no reasonable jury could find that the reasons for firing her are pretextual, so Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. # 77) is due to be granted.


         The court has subject-matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue.


         To succeed on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must show 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.P. 56(a). The court views the evidence, and all reasonable inferences drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Jean-Baptiste v. Gutierrez, 627 F.3d 816, 820 (11th Cir. 2010).

         A party seeking summary judgment “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for the motion.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). This responsibility includes identifying the parts of the record that show there is no genuine dispute of material fact. A movant who does not bear a trial burden of production may also assert, without citing the record, that the nonmoving party “cannot produce admissible evidence to support” a material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(B). If the moving party meets its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to present evidence of a genuine dispute of material fact. A genuine dispute of material fact exists when the nonmoving party produces evidence allowing a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in its favor. Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Assocs., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001).

         III. FACTS

         Wanda Jurriaans was born in 1942. She worked for ACES from 1965 until she was fired in 2016. Defendants say that Jurriaans lost her job because she strained relationships with government officials, did not get along with her colleagues, and did not consistently meet expectations. Are those the real reasons, or are they pretext for discrimination and retaliation? Answering those questions require understanding how ACES works and what happened during Jurriaans's last year-and-a-half with ACES.

         A. The Alabama Cooperative Extension System

         ACES is a partnership between Alabama A&M University and Auburn University. It exists to deliver “research-based educational programs that enable people to improve their quality of life and economic well-being.” (Doc. # 79-3, at 47-48.) In other words, ACES diffuses into the community what researchers learn at Auburn and Alabama A&M. It works in urban and rural areas, providing “useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture, forestry and natural resources, family and individual well-being, youth development, community and economic development, and other areas.” Act of Aug. 2, 2005, No. 304, § 1, 2005 Ala. Laws 607, 609 (codified at Ala. Code § 2-30-2).

         Auburn and Alabama A&M jointly administer ACES. Auburn appoints an Extension Director, while Alabama A&M appoints an Extension Administrator. The Extension Director and Extension Administrator cooperate to ensure ACES's statewide success, but they separately monitor the work done at their respective schools. Each has an Associate Director as his or her second-in-command. (Doc. # 79-3, at 55, 58.) Defendant Gary Lemme has been the Extension Director since 2011. Defendant Paul Brown has been the Associate Director at Auburn since 2009. (Doc. # 79-6, at 4; Doc. # 79-5, at 4.)

         Lemme and Brown supervise a team of Assistant Directors.[1] Most Assistant Directors are responsible for programs in certain content areas. For example, there is an Assistant Director for 4-H programs, another for agriculture and forestry programs, and another for family and consumer sciences programs. These program-focused Assistant Directors oversee Regional Extension Agents (REAs). REAs work in designated geographical regions in Alabama, and they work on programs in their content area. (Doc. # 79-3, at 60, 66.) Defendant Kyle Kostelecky was the Assistant Director for Family and Consumer Sciences in 2015 and 2016, though he no longer works for ACES. His office was at Auburn University. (Doc. # 79-8, at 12, 20.)

         ACES keeps an office in each of Alabama's sixty-seven counties because it is “committed to maintaining a strong local presence” in each county. (Doc. # 79-3, at 51.) Each office is led by a County Extension Coordinator (CEC), who serves as the “principal community liaison.” (Doc. # 79-3, at 51.) CECs are thus responsible for arranging and coordinating programs in their counties, building and strengthening relationships with stakeholders, and leading their offices. (Doc. # 79-3, at 51, 67.) CECs must know the needs in their counties and implement programs accordingly. They are the “primary contact” for local government officials, and securing funding from local government is a key part of their job (as is applying for grants from other sources). (Doc. # 79-3, at 51, 104.) CECs work with REAs, but neither works for the other. CECs report to the Assistant Director for County Office Operations - a post held by Defendant Stanley Windham at all times relevant to this lawsuit. (Doc. # 79-3, at 6, 61, 104.) Windham's office is at Auburn University, though the sixty-seven CECs he supervises are scattered across the state. (Doc. # 79-5, at 17, 31.)

         B. Wanda Jurriaans's Employment

         Jurriaans joined ACES after she graduated from college. From 1965 to 1990, she worked on home economics, nutrition, and 4-H projects. Then in 1990, she became the County Extension Coordinator for Talladega County. (Doc. # 79-4, at 35-38.) At first, Jurriaans was successful as a CEC. But this case is about her more recent performance.

         1. Jurriaans's 2014 performance evaluation criticized her leadership and communication skills.

         Every year, Windham gives a written performance evaluation to each CEC. In February 2015, Windham gave Jurriaans her review for the 2014 calendar year. He rated her overall performance as a 3 out of 5, meaning her work was “satisfactory and effective in meeting expected levels of performance.”[2] (Doc. # 79-1, at 15.) He included positive comments, opining that she was “quite innovative, ” was “diligent to seek input, ” would “foster programming, ” was “very responsive to clientele needs and requests, ” and had “a good view and understanding of what would make Talladega County a better place to work and live.” (Doc. # 79-1, at 14-15.) He noticed that Jurriaans was a disciplined and detail-focused employee who used her experience to build programs. (Doc. # 79-1, at 7-8.) And Windham said she was “very willing to be a team player and support team projects.” (Doc. # 79-1, at 12.)

         But Jurriaans's 2014 evaluation was not all roses. Six weeks before he gave Jurriaans her evaluation, Windham learned that an ACES employee had gone to the Clay County CEC “on numerous occasions in tears or nearly in tears, exasperated about the working environment in Talladega County.” (Doc. # 79-1, at 17; see Doc. # 87-6, at 6.) And in the evaluation, Windham criticized Jurriaans's leadership and communication style. He told her to soften her tone and to be more supportive of less-experienced employees:

• “Wanda has a wealth of experience and as the front line supervisor for the Talladega County Office - has an opportunity to mentor agents and others to a high level. One item that would help this cause is to be mindful of approach to people - stay positive as much as possible - as she works with all employees.” (Doc. # 79-1, at 7.)
• “Wanda is very willing to be a team player and support team projects. This area would be enhanced by reaching out to internal and external entities and making this better known to those serving and supporting her office.” (Doc. # 79-1, at 12.)
• “She . . . could soften her verbal and managerial approach particularly with . . . ACES employees. She could attain the same results by utilizing her vast experience and ideas and reaching out to employees with a more supportive approach. In her mind she is meeting needs and she does many times - however approach is everything as we build relationships with those we supervise and work with.” (Doc. # 79-1, at 13.)
• “[Effective communication] would be enhanced by being careful to control especially verbal approach to mainly ACES employees. Her intent is good - verbal delivery could be more productive.” (Doc. # 79-1, at 14.)

         In general, Windham suggested that Jurriaans work on “utilizing her experience to a higher level” and “communicating with and mentoring younger agents in a more nurturing fashion.” (Doc. # 79-1, at 15.)

         While he gave them less attention, Windham noted two other areas of concern in Jurriaans's 2014 evaluation. One was that funding from Talladega County “could possibly increase.” (Doc. # 79-1, at 10.) The other concern was “collegiality issues” in the local 4-H program. (Doc. # 79-1, at 11.) Windham did not pin all the blame on Jurriaans, and he recognized that Jurriaans “worked to resolve” the collegiality issues, but he still mentioned them. (Doc. # 79-1, at 11.)

         2. Jurriaans was invited to a meeting about planning for retirement.

         Now fast-forward six months. In August 2015, CECs from across the state met for a two-day professional development workshop. One of the programs at the workshop was an after-dinner meeting about planning for retirement. Attendance was optional; CECs could go home early rather than sit through the meeting. But Gary Lemme, the Extension Director, wanted people to attend. He testified that he “made a general announcement” to “everybody” and went to “every table” inviting CECs. (Doc. # 79-6, at 7.) And Lemme states that “a wide spectrum of ages of experienced people” stayed for the meeting. (Doc. # 79-6, at 8.)

         Jurriaans says that Lemme invited her four times and was “adamant” that she attend. After Lemme's second invitation, she told him, “I may want to work until I die.” (Doc. # 79-4, at 41; Doc. # 87-11, at 3.) Jurriaans also asserts that Lemme made no announcement at her table, but she admits that she does not know who all Lemme invited. (Doc. # 79-4, at 41; Doc. # 87-6, at 2.) Jurriaans also thought that Lemme was encouraging her to retire, but she does not identify a direct statement to that effect.[3] Both Lemme and Jurriaans went to the meeting. (Doc. # 79-4, at 41.)

         3. Jurriaans's 2015 evaluation criticized her for inconsistent leadership, communication, county engagement, and 4-H programs.

         Now fast-forward again, this time to January 2016. That is when Windham gave Jurriaans her 2015 performance evaluation. He rated her overall performance as a 2 out of 5, meaning that she was “inconsistent in meeting established standards of performance.” (Doc. # 79-4, at 67.) Windham gave Jurriaans high marks for civil rights compliance, securing grant funding, grassroots organization, and more. But, as in 2014, Windham criticized Jurriaans's leadership and communication skills, as well as what he said was a failure to promote “new and innovative” programs. In making his critiques, Windham referenced Jurriaans's “experience.” For example:

• “One area that needs improvement is Office Culture. Given her experience and abilities to foster positive and highly functioning programs, the overall feeling and attitude of the local office is below basic standards.” (Doc. # 79-4, at 69.)
• “There is a feeling by many serving this office that they must struggle to get things done in this County because of Wanda. She needs to be proactive to change this perception.” (Doc. # 79-4, at 69.)
• “Given her abilities, experience, and knowledge - she could mentor, lead, and foster most any program and effort that is appropriate to ACES' mission. Further, she could be an excellent asset to less seasoned employees and those struggling with various areas of their job. This has not happened however to an appropriate level that is becoming of her experience and abilities.” (Doc. # 79-4, at 68.)
• “It appears she many times is difficult to deal with on projects she does not embrace, lacks an embracing nature related to innovation in some projects, and thus is not as impactful in her County to the level you would expect for someone with her skills and knowledge.” (Doc. # 79-4, at 68.)
• “She and I on many occasions have discussed her need to utilize [her talent and experience] to help and mentor less experienced colleagues. This has not occurred to the level that it could. . . . A few suggestions would involve a positive approach and willing hand when approached related to programming. In addition, praise and constructive guidance would go a long way towards helping less seasoned professionals feel more confident and willing to be housed and work in her County.” (Doc. # 79-4, at 71.)
• “Given her [position and experience], she is not as catalytic in fostering or embracing new and innovative programming, as much as she could be given her level of experience.” (Doc. # 79-4, at 72.)
• “Basic improvement could be attained thru an open and proactive willingness to work with all ACES personnel in a mentoring and nurturing fashion, sustain traditional and proven programming while being willing to try new/innovative programming efforts, and be mindful that proving impact to County citizens and stakeholders will enhance her image, success, and consequently the success and image of ACES in Talladega County.” (Doc. # 79-4, at 68.)

         Windham also critiqued Jurriaans's relationship with Talladega County. He noted that though the county seemed financially sound, it had not increased funding to ACES in years. He also pointed out that ACES used less office space in the county building than it had in the past. He said these failures to expand reflected “some level of disconnect” between ACES and the county. (Doc. # 79-4, at 70.)[4]

         Finally, Windham expressed concern about 4-H programs. 4-H membership had declined, and Windham noted apparent “issues” between Jurriaans and the local 4-H REA, Kim Good. (Doc. # 79-4, at 77.) Windham opined that Jurriaans did not fully embrace “innovative and new programming approaches.” (Doc. # 79-4, at 77.)[5]

         Jurriaans tried to appeal this evaluation. (Doc. # 79-3, at 155-56.) According to ACES administrators, there is no formal appeals process for annual evaluations. (Doc. # 79-3, at 15, 147; Doc. # 79-5, at 29; Doc. # 79-6, at 12). Still, Windham let Jurriaans attach comments to the evaluation. (Doc. # 79-3, at 147-50.) Windham also told Jurriaans that he would help her improve. (Doc. # 79-1, at 3; Doc. # 79-3, at 147.)

         In March 2016, Jurriaans met with Associate Director Paul Brown to discuss her objections to her 2015 evaluation. Jurriaans gave Brown a written rebuttal to the evaluation (see Doc. # 79-3, at 149-50), and Brown agreed to attach that rebuttal to the evaluation (Doc. # 79-5, at 14-15). But Brown concurred with Windham's assessment, asserting that Jurriaans's performance was subpar given her experience as a CEC. In his deposition, Brown opined that Jurriaans did not go beyond the basics in some projects. He stated that there was a history of people not wanting to work with Jurriaans. (Doc. # 79-5, at 16-17.) Finally, he said that her approach to 4-H programs was “elementary” and that she did not work well with the local 4-H REA, Kim Good. (Doc. # 79-5, at 23, 25-26, 34.)

         4. Chris McClendon concluded that Jurriaans had “seriously strained”relationships with county ...

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