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Crawford v. Eastern Kentucky University

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

February 20, 2019

DORIS CRAWFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
EASTERN KENTUCKY UNIVERSITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          CLARIA HORN BOOM, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         I. Procedural History

         This matter is before the Court on defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. [R. 18] On July 5, 2017 Plaintiff Doris Crawford brought suit in Madison County Circuit Court for claims of discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (“KCRA”). [R. 1-2, Compl. at ¶¶ 13-20] On July 24, 2017 Defendant Eastern Kentucky University (“EKU”) filed a notice of removal from Madison Circuit Court. [R. 1, Notice of Removal] Defendant EKU moved for summary judgment on June 11, 2018. [R. 18] Plaintiff filed her response in opposition to defendant's motion on July 19, 2018 [R. 26] and defendant filed its reply on August 1, 2018. [R. 29] Because plaintiff has failed to show that defendant's legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for her termination was pretext for unlawful discrimination, defendant's motion for summary judgment is granted on both counts.

         II. Factual Background

         The Model Laboratory School (“Model”) is a preschool through twelfth grade school operated under the umbrella of the EKU College of Education. [R. 18-1, Defendant's Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment (“Def.'s Memo in Support”), at p. 3, Page ID #: 80] In early 2014 EKU began considering the possibility of reorganizing Model in order to achieve a more efficient organizational structure with an eye to transforming Model into a University Teaching School akin to a medical school's teaching hospital. [R. 18-3, E-mail from Janna Vice]

         In November of 2014 two fateful things occurred. First, EKU appointed Dr. Ann Burns, an assistant professor in the College of Education, to be Interim Director of Model in order to oversee the reorganization as well as to investigate which systems throughout the school could be improved. [R. 18-18, Burns Dep., at pp. 2-3, 16:8-18:14] Burns was appointed to the position as she had been “acknowledged by the State of Kentucky as a school turnaround specialist.” [R. 18-20, Vice Dep. at p. 5, 33:1-20] Second, believing the position to be necessary, EKU posted a job listing for a Response to Intervention (“RTI”) Coordinator at Model. Id. at p. 8, 48:6-9. Following a short search Plaintiff Doris Crawford was appointed RTI Coordinator at Model beginning on February 2, 2015. [R. 18-7, Terms of Faculty Appointment]

         From the outset plaintiff's time at Model did not go smoothly, a fact that plaintiff attributes to discrimination by her colleagues and superiors. [R. 26-3, Crawford Dep., at p. 9, 46:20] Plaintiff alleges that this discrimination manifested itself in various fashions, including: that she was given neither an office nor supplies, that she had to teach classes outside of the scope of her employment, that her position was not given a stipend, that she was not given a job description when she started, that her salary did not match what was advertised, that she was treated differently with regards to disciplinary matters, and that her colleagues and superiors treated her negatively including comments about her race. [R. 18-16, OEI Investigative Report, at pp. 35-44, Page ID #: 203-212]

         While plaintiff did not make a formal complaint for discrimination following EKU's official procedure until December 17, 2015 [R. 18-1, Def.'s Memo in Support, at p. 13, Page ID #: 90], she made various informal complaints to members of the University throughout 2015. In June of 2015 plaintiff emailed Dr. Burns complaining about her lack of a stipend. [R. 18-10, June 2015 E-mail] After investigation, the University found that despite plaintiff's claims other districts did not offer a stipend for the RTI Coordinator position. Id. While plaintiff's emails from this inquiry did not contain any mention of racial discrimination she claims that she complained that the lack of a stipend was an element of racial discrimination in follow up verbal conversations with Dr. Burns [R. 26-3, Crawford Dep., at p. 25, 137-:15], a claim Dr. Burns refutes [R. 18-18, Burns Dep. at p. 7, 37:11] Next, in August or September of 2015 plaintiff followed up on her complaints to Dr. Burns by meeting with defendant's General Counsel Dr. Laurie Carter to complain about what she viewed as disparate treatment. [R. 26, Plaintiff's Memorandum in Response (“Pl.'s Response”), at p. 5, Page ID #: 285] Finally, in October of 2015 plaintiff met with Josyln Glover, Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion (“OEI”), to complain about what she viewed as the unfair treatment she was facing at EKU. [R. 26-3, Crawford Dep., at p. 28, 151:2] Following this meeting Josyln Glover advised plaintiff to file a formal complaint. Id. at 29, 153:10-12. Plaintiff filed her official complaint with OEI on December 17, 2015 [R. 18-1, Def's Memo in Support, at p. 13, Page ID #: 90], and after an investigation OEI concluded on May 16, 2016 that plaintiff had not faced improper discrimination. [R. 18-16, OEI Investigative Report]

         On December 18, 2015, the day following Crawford's OEI complaint, defendant announced its plans to restructure the administration of Model to the entire faculty, importantly noting that the changes had been approved the day before. [R. 18-12, December 2015 E-mail] This e-mail noted the high level changes that would restructure the school's administration to be run by a new Executive Director, a co-director for elementary, and a co-director for the middle and high schools. Id. In order to achieve this restructuring, Model eliminated three positions: Director, Associate Director, and RTI Coordinator. [R. 18-1, Def.'s Memo in Support, at p. 12, Page ID #: 89] Prior to the reorganization these positions were held, respectively, by Dr. James Dantic [R. 18-18, Burns Dep. at p. 2, 16:7], Laura Dedic, and Plaintiff Crawford. [R. 18-1, Def.'s Memo in Support, at p. 12, Page ID #: 89] This new structure would decrease the administrative burden on the director running Model, who was previously required to oversee three separate schools covering “54 faculty members, 26 staff and 730 students, covering 14 grade levels.” Id. Under the new administrative structure the newly created Executive Director position would be able to focus on serving as a liaison between the College of Education and the University, while the newly created co-directors would be able to lend a greater focus to the schools they oversaw. Id. at p. 11.

         In order to fill these new positions EKU not only set up three separate search committees but also established a site-based council pursuant to Kentucky law to oversee the hiring process. Id. at 13, Page ID #: 90. While at least two candidates were interviewed for each position, and despite encouragement by defendant for plaintiff to apply to any of the newly created positions [R. 26-3, Crawford Dep., at p. 9, 40:5-8], plaintiff declined to apply to any of them. Following this search, EKU hired Eric Parker, an African American, to be the new Executive Director and Laura Dedic to be the new Director of Secondary Education. [R. 18-1, Def.'s Memo in Support, at p. 13, Page ID #: 90]

         With her former position eliminated, plaintiff was formally notified on February 23, 2016 that her contract would not be renewed past May of that year. [R. 26, Pl.'s Response, at p. 6, Page ID #: 286] On July 5, 2017 plaintiff brought suit in Madison County Circuit Court for claims of race discrimination and retaliation. [R. 1-2, Compl.]

         III. Legal Analysis

         Summary judgment is proper where “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(a). When determining a motion for summary judgment a court must construe the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences from the underlying facts in favor of the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356 (1986); Lindsay v. Yates, 578 F.3d 407, 414 (6th Cir. 2009). The court may not “weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter” at the summary judgment stage. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 265 (1986). When, as here, the defendant moves for summary judgment “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Id. at 252. The initial burden of establishing no genuine dispute of material fact rests with the moving party. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553 (1986). If the moving party satisfies this burden, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to produce “specific facts” showing a “genuine issue” for trial. Id.

         A. Count I: Race Discrimination

         Plaintiff claims that she was fired due to her race in violation of Title VII and KRS 344.040. [R. 1-2, Compl. ¶¶ 15, 19] Because courts generally interpret Title VII “consonant[ly]” with the KCRA the claims are analyzed together. Hamilton v. Gen. Elec. Co., 556 F.3d 428, 434 (6th Cir. 2009).

         Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer “to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1); Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21, 114 S.Ct. 367, 126 L.Ed.2d 295 (1993). In disparate treatment cases the adverse employment action must be motivated at least in part by the plaintiff's protected-group status, as “[a]bsent a discriminatory basis, an employer does not violate Title VII, even though the discharge may have been arbitrary, unfair, or for no reason at all.” Lewis-Smith v. Western Kentucky University, 85 F.Supp.3d 885 (W.D. Ky. 2015) (citing St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 514, 113 S.Ct. 2742, 125 L.Ed.2d 407 (1993)).

         Where there is no direct evidence of discrimination, in order to sustain a claim of disparate treatment under Title VII the plaintiff carries the burden of first establishing a prima facie case of discrimination by showing (1) that she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was qualified for the job and performed it satisfactorily; (3) despite her qualifications and performance, she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) she was replaced by a person outside the protected class or treated less favorably than a similarly situated individual outside of her protected class. See, e.g., Laster v. City of Kalamazoo, 746 F.3d 714 (6th Cir. 2014). The fourth prong is modified in cases of reorganization or reduction in force, and instead the plaintiff must show “additional direct, circumstantial, or statistical evidence tending to indicate that the employer singled out the plaintiff for discharge for impermissible reasons.” Barnes v. GenCorp Inc., 896 F.2d 1457, 1465 (6th Cir. 1990). This evidence must be “sufficiently probative to allow a factfinder to believe that the employer intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff” because of her race. Id. at 1466. Once the plaintiff has made a prima facie case the burden then shifts to the defendant “to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for the adverse action. Skrjanc v. Great Lakes Power Serv. Co., 272 F.3d 309, 315 (6th Cir. 2001). If the defendant states such a reason, the plaintiff then has the burden of showing that the defendant's articulated reason is nothing more than a pretext to hide improper discrimination. Tingle v. Arbors at Hilliard, 692 F.3d 523 (6th Cir. 2012). Both parties concede that the first two elements of the prima facie case are met. [R. 26, Pl.'s Response, at p. 10, Page ID #: 290]

         a) Adverse ...


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