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Rodriguez v. Elon University

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

April 27, 2018



          Loretta C. Biggs, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff, Michael Rodriguez, initiated this action in state court on January 25, 2017, against Defendant, Elon University (“Elon”), alleging employment discrimination based on national origin in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), and based on race in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (“Section 1981”). (ECF No. 2.) On February 27, 2017, Elon removed the case to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1441 and 1446. (ECF No. 1.) Before the Court are Elon's Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, (ECF No. 20), and Defendant's Motion for Continuance of Trial, (ECF No. 26). For the reasons outlined herein Elon's summary judgment motion is granted, and the motion for continuance is denied as moot.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was hired by Elon in August 2009 as an Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Marketing and Entrepreneurship Department of the Love School of Business (“LSB”). (ECF No. 20-1 at 1-2; ECF No. 23-5 ¶ 6.) Plaintiff, who is Hispanic and of Puerto Rican descent, was the only Hispanic employee at the LSB during his employment at Elon. (ECF No. 23-5 ¶¶ 4, 7.) In April 2012, Plaintiff was named Faculty Director of Elon's Chandler Family Professional Sales Center (“Sales Center”), and he “held the dual role of Faculty Director and Assistant Professor.” (ECF No. 20-2 ¶ 4; ECF No. 23-5 ¶ 8.) As Faculty Director, Plaintiff coached a Sales Team that competed in sales competitions on behalf of Elon. (See ECF No. 20-1 at 6-7, 36-37; ECF No. 20-11 at 1.)

         During the 2014-2015 academic year, Plaintiff sought a promotion and tenure at Elon, (ECF No. 20-2 ¶ 11; ECF No. 23-5 ¶ 25), by submitting his portfolio for evaluation by the Promotions and Tenure Committee (the “Committee”) and Raghuram Tadepalli, Dean of LSB, (ECF No. 20-3 at 4; see ECF Nos. 20-6, 20-7, 20-8). The Committee was comprised of eight faculty members, none of whom were known to Plaintiff. (ECF No. 20-1 at 42-43; ECF No. 20-16.) Pursuant to Elon's policy, Dean Tadepalli and the Committee each, separately, considered Plaintiff's portfolio, (see ECF No. 20-3 at 4), and each subsequently tendered separate “no” recommendations to Elon's Provost regarding Plaintiff's application, (ECF No. 20-2 ¶ 12; ECF No. 20-9 ¶¶ 10-12; ECF No. 20-10; ECF No. 20-13 ¶ 17; ECF No. 20-14). A joint meeting of the Provost, the Committee, and Dean Tadepalli was held during which the Committee and the Dean shared with the Provost “the reasons for their decisions not to recommend Rodriguez” for promotion and/or tenure. (ECF No. 20-2 ¶ 13; see ECF No. 20-3 at 4-5.) As a result, the Provost, who has “never recommended a candidate for promotion and/or tenure who received ‘no' recommendations from both the Committee and the appropriate dean, ” did not recommend to the President of Elon that Plaintiff be granted promotion or tenure. (ECF No. 20-2 ¶¶ 9, 17; see ECF No. 20-3 at 5.) Based on the Provost's decision, the President, who likewise, “has never recommended anyone for promotion or tenure when the [P]rovost has not recommended it, ” declined to recommend that Plaintiff's request for promotion and/or tenure be granted by the Board of Trustees, the final decision-makers. (ECF No. 20-2 ¶ 19.) Ultimately, the Board denied Plaintiff's application for promotion and/or tenure. (See ECF No. 23-5 ¶ 37.) In accordance with Elon's policy, Plaintiff “was offered a one-year terminal contract for the 2015-2016 academic year, ” which he did not accept. (ECF No. 20-2 ¶¶ 23-24.) Plaintiff's contract with Elon expired on June 30, 2015. (ECF No. 23-5 ¶ 43.)

         Plaintiff alleges that Elon's denial of his application for promotion and/or tenure was based on his national origin in violation of Title VII, and based on his race in violation of Section 1981. (ECF No. 2 ¶¶ 25-31.) Further, Plaintiff alleges a claim of constructive discharge, (id. ¶¶ 27, 30), and in his response brief, for the first time, raises a Title VII retaliation claim, (see ECF No. 24 at 7-9, 12-14). Elon has moved for summary judgment on all claims arguing “that there is no genuine issue of material fact regarding Plaintiff's claims.” (ECF No. 20 at 1.)


         Summary judgment is appropriate when “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 must view the evidence and “resolve all factual disputes and any competing, rational inferences in the light most favorable” to the nonmoving party. Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Wightman v. Springfield Terminal Ry. Co., 100 F.3d 228, 230 (1st Cir. 1996)). A genuine issue for trial exists only when “there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). “If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Id. at 249-50 (citations omitted).

         In opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party cannot rest on “mere allegations or denials.” Id. at 248 (internal quotation marks omitted). The adverse party must set forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 250. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A) (stating that a party must “cit[e] to particular parts of . . . the record, including depositions, documents, . . . affidavits or declarations, . . . admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials”). “The summary judgment inquiry thus scrutinizes the plaintiff's case to determine whether the plaintiff has proffered sufficient proof, in the form of admissible evidence that could carry the burden of proof of his claim at trial.” Mitchell v. Data Gen. Corp., 12 F.3d 1310, 1316 (4th Cir. 1993).


         A. Plaintiff's Failure to Promote Claims

         Plaintiff alleges that he was discriminated against based on his national origin in violation of Title VII, and based on his race in violation of Section 1981, when Elon denied his application for promotion and tenure. (ECF No. 2 ¶¶ 25-31.)

         Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race . . . or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Like Title VII, Section 1981 provides “a federal remedy against discrimination in private employment on the basis of race, ” Johnson v. Ry. Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 459-60 (1975). “In failure-to-promote cases such as this, ‘the framework of proof for disparate treatment claims . . . is the same for actions brought under Title VII, or § 1981, or both statutes.” Bryant v. Aiken Reg'l Med. Centers Inc., 333 F.3d 536, 545 n.3 (4th Cir. 2003) (alteration in original) (quoting Mallory v. Booth Refrigeration Supply Co., 882 F.2d 908, 910 (4th Cir. 1989)). See Williams v. Giant Food Inc., 370 F.3d 423, 430 n.5 (4th Cir. 2004) (“The same elements are required for failure-to-promote claims alleged under Title VII and § 1981, and the district court properly considered these claims together.”). Accordingly, Plaintiff's Title VII and Section 1981 claims, which rely on the same factual allegations, will be analyzed together for the purposes of the instant motion.

         A plaintiff can establish discrimination under Title VII and Section 1981 by direct evidence or by utilizing the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.[1] Evans v. Techs. Applications & Serv. Co., 80 F.3d 954, 959 (4th Cir. 1996). Because the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to bring forth direct evidence of discrimination, [2] Plaintiff must, therefore, utilize the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework to establish his claim. This framework first requires that Plaintiff establish a prima facie case of failure to promote based on national origin or race, by showing that: (1) he is a member of a protected group; (2) he applied for the position in question; (3) he was qualified for the position; and (4) Elon denied him the promotion and/or tenure under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. Carter v. Ball, 33 F.3d 450, 458 (4th Cir. 1994). “Ultimately, the establishment of a prima facie case of employment discrimination requires proof by a preponderance of the evidence that the plaintiff was not promoted or dismissed under conditions which, more likely than not, were based upon impermissible racial [or other] considerations.” Gairola v. Commonwealth of Va. Dep't of Gen. Servs., 753 F.2d 1281, 1286 (4th Cir. 1985) (internal quotation marks omitted). Once Plaintiff has established a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas, the employer bears the burden of advancing a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its failure to promote Plaintiff. See Dallas v. Giant Food, Inc., 187 F.Supp.2d 505, 509 (D. Md. 2002) (citing Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 254 (1981)), aff'd, Skipper v. Giant Food, Inc., 68 Fed.Appx. 393 (4th Cir. 2003). If the employer proffers such a reason, the burden then shifts back to Plaintiff to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the reason provided by the employer was pretext for discrimination. Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Med. Ctr., Inc., 290 F.3d 639, 646 (4th Cir. 2002). Although Elon acknowledges that Plaintiff has met his burden with respect to “establishing the first two elements of his prima facie case” of discrimination, it argues that Plaintiff's claim nonetheless fails because he cannot satisfy the third and fourth elements-that he was qualified for the position, and that Elon's denial of promotion and/or tenure occurred under circumstances that give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. (ECF No. 21 at 13, 14.)

         1. Whether Plaintiff was qualified for promotion and/or tenure

         Where, as in this case, Plaintiff's claims arise out of decision-making in an academic setting, this Court proceeds cautiously. The Fourth Circuit has recognized that “while Title VII is available to aggrieved professors, we review professorial employment decisions with great trepidation.” Jiminez v. Mary Wash. Coll., 57 F.3d 369, 376 (4th Cir. 1995). In reviewing such decisions, courts “do not sit as a super personnel council, ” id. (internal quotation marks omitted), and will not interfere with an academic institution's decision to deny tenure in order to impose their own judgment, see Smith v. Univ. of N.C. , 632 F.2d 316, ...

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