United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
JOE L. WEBSTER, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, a former employee of Defendant North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University ("NCA&T), brought this action alleging, inter alia, wrongful discharge, violation of the Equal Pay Act, discrimination based on race and gender, and retaliatory discharge. The matter is before the court on Defendant's motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. (Docket Entry 19.) Plaintiff has responded to the motion and the matter is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, it is recommended that Defendant's motion be granted.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff was initially employed at NCA&T in September 2003 in a temporary, fulltime, grant-funded position in the Department of Information Technology ("DoIT"). (Compl. 4, Docket Entry 2; Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 5, Declaration of Linda McAbee ¶ 6, Docket Entry 19-5; Pl.'s Response Br., Ex. A, Affidavit of Valerie Small ¶ 3, Docket Entry 26-1.) Plaintiff was employed on a year-to-year basis through September 30, 2007. (Compl. ¶¶ 7, 9; McAbee Decl. ¶ 8.) Plaintiff's position was originally listed as both an Applications Analyst Programmer I and a Data Base Software Analyst; these two positions had the same salary grade under the State Office of State Personnel ("OSP") guidelines. (McAbee Decl. ¶ 7; Small Aff. ¶ 4.) In September 2006, NCA&T began the process of converting positions from a graded classification system to "career banding." (McAbee Decl. ¶ 9.) This process involved "cross-walking, " a system of mapping which "translated each position in the old classification system to a position in the new classification system, without regard for any particular employee in any particular position." (Id.) Under the new system, Plaintiff's job title was changed from Applications Analyst Programmer I to Business and Technology Applications Analyst; her position number, salary, and time limit remained unchanged. (McAbee Decl. ¶ 10.)
On July 31, 2007, Plaintiff was informed that the funding for her position had run out, and that her position would be terminated on September 30, 2007. ( Id. ¶ 11; Small Aff. ¶ 23; Compl. ¶ 22.) On August 3, 2007, Plaintiff filed a grievance pursuant to Defendant's Grievance Policy, contending that because she had been employed by NCA&T for over three years, her position was permanent and she could not be terminated. (Employee Grievance and Appeal Filing Form, McAbee Decl., Ex. 7, Docket Entry 19-5 at 23; see also Compl. ¶ 23.) Plaintiff also raised others issues in the grievance, alleging that she had been retaliated against because she had sent a list of ITT problems to the NCA&T Chancellor and other officials. ( Id. )
After Plaintiff filed her grievance, a new Business and Technology Applications Analyst position was created for her in the Office of Student Affairs, to start on October 1, 2007. (McAbee Decl. Ex. 8.) Plaintiff was transferred to this position, without a break in service, and retained the same salary. (McAbee Decl. ¶ 14; McAbee Decl. Ex. 9; Compl. 33.)
After Plaintiff's transfer to the Student Affairs division, she was placed on investigatory leave with pay and was disciplined for unacceptable personal conduct. This conduct, which occurred in August 2007 before her transfer, involved unauthorized access of personal information of former and current NCA&T employees. Plaintiff received a one-week suspension without pay. (Compl. ¶¶ 27-31; McAbee Decl. ¶ 15.) Plaintiff contends that the conclusions of the disciplinary process were incorrect because she was authorized to access all information in the different University databases and she "did not know at the time that the written authorization for [her] to have access to these databases was not in [her] personnel file." (Small Aff. ¶ 31.) Plaintiff also contends that the suspension she received was in retaliation for her reporting problems in the DoIT. ( Id. ¶ 32.) Although the conduct for which she was disciplined occurred while Plaintiff was still working in DoIT, the disciplinary process was issued by Sullivan Welbourne, the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, because Plaintiff had already been transferred to Student Affairs at the time the disciplinary letter was issued. (Compl. ¶ 27-31; McAbee Decl. ¶ 15; Small Aff. ¶ 30.)
In early November 2007, after her one-week suspension, Plaintiff began working for Leonard Jones, Director of Housing and Residential Life in the Division of Student Affairs. (Compl. ¶ 32; McAbee Decl. Ex. 10; Small Aff. ¶ 33.) According to Plaintiff, Mr. Jones was "notoriously difficult to work with and was disposed to confrontations and threats of violence." (Small Aff. ¶ 33.) Also in November 2007, Linda McAbee was hired by NCA&T as the Vice Chancellor of Human Resources. (McAbee Decl. ¶ 3.)
McAbee soon learned that Plaintiff believed that her position was improperly classified. According to Plaintiff, she claimed that she had received a promotion in 2006 which was never implemented. Plaintiff alleges that on August 17, 2006,  she was granted a promotion to the position of Database Administration Manager, and that Plaintiff and her supervisor at that time, Sam Harrison, together with Vice Chancellor for IT, R.E. Harrigan, executed a Position Description Form (PD-102R), effective August 15, 2006, to reflect this promotion. (Compl. ¶ 2; Compl. Ex. 1; McAbee Decl. ¶ 30.) Plaintiff contends that she confirmed the terms of the promotion in a letter dated November 9, 2006 to the Interim Vice Chancellor of ITT. (Compl. ¶ 14; Compl. Ex. 2.) According to McAbee, such a position reclassification would have required the approval of both NCA&T's Human Resources Department and OSP; there is no record of any such approval. (McAbee Decl. ¶ 30.) In investigating this matter, and reviewing contemporaneous e-mails, McAbee learned that a dispute had arisen between Plaintiff and NCA&T officials over Plaintiff's proposed salary, and that Harrigan left NCA&T before the dispute was resolved. ( Id. ¶ 31.) Harrigan's replacement, Dr. Vijay Verma, decided not to proceed with the reclassification of Plaintiff's position. ( Id. ) Thus, Plaintiff remained as an Application Analyst Programmer I until her position was cross-walked to a Business and Technology Applications Analyst. Her new position in 2007, created to avoid her termination, was likewise classified as a Business and Technology Applications Analyst, resulting in a horizontal transfer on October 1, 2007. (McAbee Decl. ¶ 10.)
Plaintiff also informed McAbee that her job duties and position classification were not consistent. (McAbee Decl. ¶ 26.) Plaintiff believed that she had been passed over for market value increases which had been given to certain IT positions; she believed that she was performing duties of a Database Manager but was not being compensated for such. McAbee, in attempting to address Plaintiff's concerns, directed her compensation analyst to look at Plaintiff's duties and position classification. In doing so, McAbee set up a meeting with Plaintiff's supervisors (Welbourne and Jones), Loleta Chavis, a compensation analyst, and Sheila Benton, who had previously served as Interim Director of Human Resources before McAbee was hired. (Compl. ¶¶ 43-45.) According to McAbee, it is the duty of management, not Human Resources, to determine an employee's job duties. (McAbee Decl. ¶¶ 28-29).
Jones, who was Plaintiff's immediate supervisor in Student Affairs, assigned Plaintiff's job duties. Following the meeting with HR and Plaintiff's supervisors, it was determined that Plaintiff was properly classified as a Business and Technology Applications Analyst, at the Journey level, and that the duties assigned by Jones were consistent with Plaintiff's classification. Jones was directed to proceed with his evaluation of Plaintiff's job performance. ( See McAbee Decl. Ex. 14.)
In a meeting with Jones in July 2008, Plaintiff and Jones had an argument over Plaintiff's job duties and the proper classification for her position. (Compl. ¶ 50; Pl.'s Dep. 2/29/12 at 103-04; 116-18.) Plaintiff was disciplined following this meeting for slamming the door when leaving Jones' office. (Compl. ¶¶ 52, 55.) In a letter to Welbourne on July 17, 2008, Plaintiff claimed that Jones was intimidating and harassing, and on August 28, 2008 she filed a grievance alleging such behavior on the part of Jones. (Compl. ¶¶ 51, 54; McAbee Decl. ¶¶ 33-35, 37; McAbee Decl. Ex. 18.)
On August 18, 2008, Welbourne reassigned Plaintiff to work under the supervision of Ryan Maltese, the Director of the University Events Center in the Division of Student Affairs. (Compl. ¶ 56; McAbee Decl. 35; McAbee Decl. Ex. 16.) Maltese completed a performance evaluation for Plaintiff in May 2009. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Declaration of Melody Pierce, Ex. 2, Docket Entry 19-6.) While Plaintiff noted on the evaluation that she believed the Career Banded Title for her position was still incorrect, she did not file any grievances after she began working under Maltese's supervision. (Pl's Dep. 2/29/12 at 130-31; McAbee Decl. ¶ 39.)
In 2009, NCA&T advertised an IT Manager/Database Administrator position. Plaintiff did not apply for the position. (McAbee Decl. ¶ 44.) Jeffrey Mueller was hired for the position, effective May 7, 2009. ( Id. ) Mueller resigned less than a year later and the position was again advertised in 2010. ( Id. ) Plaintiff did not apply for the position at that time either. NCA&T hired Gary Burns for the position effective June 1, 2010. ( Id. )
In April 2010, Barbara Ellis was hired as Interim Vice Chancellor for DoIT. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 3, Declaration of Barbara Ellis ¶ 3, Docket Entry 19-3.) In June 2010, Melody Pierce was hired as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. (Pierce Decl. ¶ 3.) Soon after her hiring, Pierce learned that Plaintiff's position was the only technical position in Student Affairs and because neither Pierce nor Maltese had technical expertise, it would be more efficient to move the support of the R25 application, which was Plaintiff's primary responsibility, back within DoIT. Ellis determined that DoIT could absorb the duties accompanying R25 with its existing staff. The transfer of the R25 application to DoIT meant that Plaintiff had no remaining duties. Pierce therefore made the decision to eliminate Plaintiff's position; on March 14, 2011, Pierce submitted a request for authorization of a reduction in force ("RIF") to Human Resources. (Ellis Decl. ¶¶ 5-8; Pierce Decl. ¶¶ 7-9; Pierce Decl. Ex. 1; McAbee Decl. ¶ 14; McAbee Decl. Ex. 19.) Following approval of the RIF request, Plaintiff was laid off effective April 15, 2011. (McAbee Decl. ¶ 42; McAbee Decl. Ex. 21.)
On March 17, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Petition in the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH") alleging that the elimination of her position was due to discrimination based on race or gender and/or retaliation. In an Order dated May 24, 2013, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that Plaintiff had not met her burden to prove discrimination or retaliation. (Def.'s Br., Ex. 1, OAH Order, Docket Entry 20-1.) The North Carolina State Personnel Commission ("SPC") adopted the findings and conclusions of the ALJ on November 13, 2013. (Def.'s Br., Ex. 2, SPC Order, Docket Entry 20-2.) At the time of briefing in this matter, Plaintiff's petition for judicial review of the SPC's decision was pending in Guilford County Superior Court.
Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on June 15, 2011, alleging that she had been discriminated against on the basis of sex and that she had been retaliated against for complaining of discrimination. (Pl.'s Dep. 3/20/14 at 68; and Ex. 5.)
On February 21, 2013, Plaintiff filed this action in the Guilford County Superior Court. (Docket Entry 2.) On March 27, 2013, Defendant removed the case to this court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1446(d). (Petition for Removal, Docket Entry 1.) Defendant filed the motion for summary judgment on May 2, 2014 (Docket Entry 19) and Plaintiff responded to the motion on June 30, 2014. (Docket Entry 26.)
II. MOTION FOR SUMMARY ...