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Turner v. Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University

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

September 6, 2019

NANCY D. TURNER, Plaintiff,



         Nancy Turner filed this action against the Board of Trustees for Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (“AAMU”), and Dr. Jerome Williams, Chris Robinson, Kevin Ball, Dr. William E. Cox, John Hackett, Jr., Ginger Harper, Perry Jones, and Dr. Roderick D. Watts, sued solely in their official capacities as members of the Board of Trustees, as well as Dr. Andrew Hugine in his official capacity as President of AAMU. Turner asserts gender, race, and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”) against AAMU and race discrimination and retaliation claims under § 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (“§ 1981”), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”) against the individual trustees and Dr. Hugine. Defendants have now moved for summary judgment on all of Turner's claims on the following grounds: (1) sovereign immunity; (2) a failure to make a prima facie case for her discrimination claims; and (3) a failure to demonstrate a causal connection and pretext for her retaliation claims. Based on the evidence and consideration of relevant law, Defendants' motion is due to be granted except as to the retaliation claims.

         I. RULE 56(D) MOTION TO DEFER

         The court first turns to Turner's Rule 56(d) Motion to Defer or Deny Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. Doc. 46. “Under Rule 56(d), where the non-moving party to a motion for summary judgment shows ‘by affidavit or declaration' that, for specified reasons, it ‘cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition,' the district court may delay consideration of the motion, deny the motion, allow additional time for discovery, or issue another appropriate order.” Smedley v. Deutsche Bank Tr. Co. Americas, 676 Fed.Appx. 860, 861 (11th Cir. 2017) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d)). A Rule 56(d) motion must be supported by an affidavit “which sets forth with particularity the facts the moving party expects to discover and how those facts would create a genuine issue of material fact precluding summary judgment.” Harbert Int'l, Inc. v. James, 157 F.3d 1271, 1280 (11th Cir. 1998). To prevail, Turner must demonstrate how further discovery will enable her to “rebut the movant's showing of the absence of a genuine issue of fact, ” Wallace v. Brownwell Pontiac-GMC, Co., 703 F.2d 525, 527 (11th Cir. 1983). But, “a party will not be entitled to conduct further discovery under Rule 56(d) where the absence of evidence essential to that party's case is the result of that party's lack of diligence in pursuing such evidence through permitted methods of discovery.” Cordero v. Readiness Mgmt. Support, L.C., No. 6:11-CV-1692-ORL-19, 2012 WL 3744513, at *3 (M.D. Fla. Aug. 29, 2012) (citing Barfield v. Brierton, 883 F.2d 923, 932 (11th Cir. 1989)). Finally, “whether to grant or deny a [Rule 56(d)] motion for discovery requires the court to balance the movant's demonstrated need for discovery against the burden such discovery will place on the opposing party.” Harbert Int'l, Inc., 157 F.3d at 1280.

         In support of her motion, Turner contends AAMU failed to produce documents and provide a Rule 30(b)(6) witness to testify about crucial facts she needs to oppose the summary judgment motion, including, as to her retaliation claim, evidence related to when Defendants received notice of the charge she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Doc. 46 at 5, 17, 24. Turner's contentions are unavailing. To begin, the court provided more than sufficient time for discovery, including granting multiple extensions. In particular, Defendants submitted two motions for extensions to the discovery and dispositive motions deadlines, docs. 24 and 27, and Turner also filed two motions for discovery extensions, docs. 31 and 38. The court partially granted three of these motions, docs. 25, 28, and 34, resulting in a total discovery period of over twelve months, see docs. 17 and 34. And since Turner included the retaliation claim in her original complaint, doc. 1 at 10-11, this meant Turner had at least seventeen months prior to the final discovery deadline to gather the facts necessary to ascertain when the Defendants received notice of her protected activity. Put simply, Turner had “ample time and opportunity for discovery” but “failed to diligently pursue [her] options.” Barfield, 883 F.2d at 932.

         To the extent that Turner believed that Defendants' actions impeded her effort to conduct discovery, she had the ability to seek the court's intervention but failed to do so. See doc. 17 at 17-19. “[T]he pertinent inquiry is not whether the entire discovery period has been completed, but merely whether the parties have had an adequate opportunity for discovery.” Vision Bank v. Merritt, No. CIV.A. 10-0301-W, 2010 WL 5474161, at *2, n.3 (S.D. Ala. Dec. 8, 2010) (citing Fla. Power & Light Co. v. Allis Chalmers Corp., 893 F.2d 1313, 1316 (11th Cir. 1990). In light of the extended discovery period, Turner has failed to satisfy her burden under Rule 56(d), and her motion to defer is due to be denied.[1] See Fla. Power, 893 F.3d at 1316 (affirming the district court's denial of a Rule 56(d) motion where the parties agreed on a discovery schedule which the trial court extended several times); Johnson v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Georgia, 263 F.3d 1234, 1269 (11th Cir. 2001) (noting that “district courts [have] broad discretion over the management of pre-trial activities, including discovery and scheduling”).


         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper “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.P. 56. “Rule 56[] mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (alteration in original). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to “go beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         On summary judgment motions, the court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Any factual disputes will be resolved in the non-moving party's favor when sufficient competent evidence supports the non-moving party's version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d 1275, 1276, 1278 (11th Cir. 2002) (a court is not required to resolve disputes in the non-moving party's favor when that party's version of events is supported by insufficient evidence). However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Moreover, “[a] mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the jury could reasonably find for that party.” Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).


         Turner, an African American woman, began working as a police officer in AAMU's Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) in July 2006. AMMU discharged Turner without cause in 2009 and then rehired her in 2011. AAMU subsequently promoted Turner to sergeant in 2013. Docs. 45-1 at 9; 49-1 at 1. Turner held the position until her discharge in 2016.

         The events that led to the discharge trace their genesis to October 2015, when DPS dispatched officer Lorenza Bodie to a dormitory to respond to a report concerning a female student with difficulty breathing as a result of a “marijuana-laced brownie.” Doc. 49-1 at 1-2. Bodie informed Turner, who arrived at the scene later, that the female victim mentioned a male student's name as the person who gave her the brownie. Id. Bodie later identified the male student and listed him on his incident report. Id. The following day, Turner took Bodie's report to the Madison County Magistrate's Office and obtained a warrant for the male student's arrest. Doc. 45-1 at 65. For reasons unclear to the court, DPS took no action for six months. Then, DPS Captain Amard Martin and officer Jean Joseph executed the warrant by arresting the student in class in front of his fellow students, handcuffing him, and walking him across campus to the DPS office. Doc. 45-4 at 97. A few weeks later, AAMU Vice President of Student Affairs, Dr. Gary Crosby, discovered that DPS had arrested the wrong student, and the criminal charges were dismissed. Doc. 45-4 at 23-25. Shortly thereafter, the student filed a lawsuit against AAMU, which the parties ultimately settled. Docs. 45-1 at 70-71; 45-4 at 130.

         A few months later, Turner filed three internal complaints against Brian Ruble, a DPS investigator, for creating a hostile work environment. See docs. 49-1 at 12-15. Turner reported that Ruble interrogated her about accessing certain areas of the workplace, strongly implied that she lied, threatened to record her conversation, and personally intimidated her. See doc. 45-5 at 124-129. Shortly thereafter, AAMU Human Resource Director Cassandra Tarver-Ross met with Turner to discuss her complaints and concluded ultimately that Ruble's allegedly “rude and unprofessional way” failed to rise to a hostile work environment. Doc. 45-2 at 9-11, 122.

         Prior to Turner's meeting with Tarver-Ross, DPS promoted Ruble to Captain of Administration. That same day, July 20, 2016, Turner filed an EEOC charge alleging race and sex discrimination, contending that DPS promoted Ruble to an unadvertised position and that Ruble allegedly had less experience than her, [2] failed to get along with colleagues, and created a hostile work environment. Docs. 49-1 at 16; 45-4 at 190, 45-5 at 34. Just two months later, DPS Chief Malone recommended to Dr. Crosby and Dr. Daniel Wims, Senior Personnel Officer, that AAMU discharge Turner without cause, id. at 132, which AAMU accepted. Shortly after receiving notice of her discharge, Turner filed another EEOC charge alleging retaliation, doc. 45-4 at 191, and subsequently filed this lawsuit, doc. 20.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Defendants raise two primary arguments in support of their motion: (1) that they are entitled to sovereign immunity for the §§ 1981 and 1983 claims and (2) that Turner cannot make a prima facie case for sex and race discrimination and retaliation. Doc. 41. The court reviews each contention separately below.

         A. Eleventh ...

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