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Leonard v. The Trustees of Cleveland Community College Cleveland Community College

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

May 9, 2019

WANDA S. LEONARD, Plaintiff,


          Max O. Cogburn Jr., Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff Wanda Leonard filed this action on October 30, 2017, alleging she was terminated from her employment because of her age, in violation of state and federal law. Defendants deny Plaintiff's allegation of age discrimination and argue that they terminated her employment for a legitimate business reason. On December 1, 2018, Defendants filed the present motion and supporting memorandum, which has been fully briefed and is ripe for review. The Court heard oral arguments on the motion on March 7, 2019. This Court is aware that some companies today attempt to disguise an unconstitutional reason for termination using a pretextual “legitimate business reason” for their decision. However, that is not what we have in this case. Having considered the matter, the Court enters the following findings, conclusions, and Order granting summary judgment in favor of Defendant.

         I. Introduction

         On July 1, 2004, Plaintiff Wanda Leonard (“Plaintiff”) entered into an employment contract with Cleveland Community College (“Cleveland-CC”) and The Trustees of Cleveland Community College (collectively “Defendants”) to serve as Discipline Coordinator of the Foothills Surgery Technology Consortium-a surgical technology training program with classroom and clinical components that pulls students from Cleveland-CC, Isothermal Community College, and McDowell Technical College (the “Consortium”). The Discipline Coordinator of the Foothills Surgery Technology Consortium is employed by Cleveland-CC and is responsible for overseeing the program. As Discipline Coordinator, Plaintiff was responsible for overseeing, among other things, the program and providing a high-quality learning experience for students, recruiting students to the program, assuring compliance with state and national accreditation standards, and working cooperatively with others in a collegial environment.

         Plaintiff's direct supervisor was Dr. Becky Sain, Vice President of Academic Programs at Cleveland-CC (“Dr. Sain”). Dr. Sain was responsible for, among other things, completing Plaintiff's annual employment evaluations and working with Plaintiff on ways to improve her performance and improve the surgical technology program. Consistent with Cleveland-CC's general policy for full-time employees, Plaintiff's employment contracts were issued on a year-to-year-basis and required renewal upon expiration of the previous employment term. Plaintiff's final employment agreement lasted through June 30, 2016. On June 15, 2016, Plaintiff was notified that her employment contract would not be renewed for the upcoming year.

         Defendants assert that they terminated Plaintiff's employment because of her continuous “unprofessional treatment of students and the unhealthy learning environment she created[, which] resulted in low retention rates.” Defs.' Mem. (#20) at 8. Defendants assert that these problems were longstanding and systemic, impacting both the students and the Consortium's relationship with clinical and collegial affiliates. See Defs.' Mem. (#20) at 3 (indicating Dr. Sain first became aware of issues with Plaintiff's work performance as Discipline Coordinator as early as 2010).

         More specifically, Defendants allege,

Plaintiff was not satisfactorily performing the essential functions of her job; she had poor interactions with students spurring years of student complaints about her behavior; the Surgical Technology Program suffered from poor recruitment and low retention/graduation of students; relationships with clinical sites failed and some were ultimately lost; and sustainability of the program with partnering colleges in the consortium deteriorated.

See Defs.' Mem. (#20) at 3. Defendants claim they informed Plaintiff about her performance problems several times, counseled her on ways to improve, and gave her numerous opportunities to adjust her attitude, behavior, and methods. Defendants claim that by June 2016 Plaintiff's work performance still had not improved, and Dr. Sain advised against renewing her employment contract.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment shall be granted “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(a). A factual dispute 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). A fact is material only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Id. The movant has the “initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal citations omitted). Once this initial burden is met, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party. That party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 322 n.3. The nonmoving party may not rely upon mere allegations or denials of allegations in his pleadings to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 324. Instead, that party must present sufficient evidence from which “a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; accord Sylvia Dev. Corp. v. Calvert Cnty., Md., 48 F.3d 810, 818 (4th Cir. 1995).

         When ruling on a summary judgment motion, a court must view the evidence and any inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255; Educ. Media Co. at Va. Tech, Inc. v. Insley, 731 F.3d 291, 297 (4th Cir. 2013). “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009) (quoting Matsushita v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)). However, “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient [to create a genuine dispute]; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. In the end, the question posed by a summary judgment motion is whether the evidence “is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id.

         III. Statutory Framework for Age Discrimination

         Plaintiff alleges age discrimination under both federal and state law. The federal claim is based on the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621, and the state claim is based on the North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act (“NCEEPA”), N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-422.2. The ADEA makes it “unlawful for an employer . . . to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual's age.” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). The NCEEPA prohibits discrimination based on age as against public policy, and provides:

[I]t is the public policy of this State to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to seek, obtain and hold employment without discrimination or abridgement on account of race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex or handicap by employers which regularly employ 15 or more employees.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-422.2 (1977). The statute provides a cause of action for those alleging wrongful discharge based on age. Rishel v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 297 F.Supp.2d 854, 875 (M.D. N.C. 2003). When considering a wrongful discharge claim based on age under North Carolina law, the court applies the same standards that apply under the ADEA. Id.; accord Moser v. Driller's Serv., Inc., 988 F.Supp.2d 559, 565 (W.D. N.C. 2013); Matthews v. Novant Health, Inc., No. 3:09CV494, 2010 WL 2131559, at *7 (W.D. N.C. Apr. 29, 2010) (report and recommendation adopted) (“Regarding Plaintiff's state public policy claim, North Carolina courts “look to federal decisions [in employment discrimination cases] for guidance in establishing evidentiary standards and principles of law to be applied in discrimination cases.”) (quoting N.C. Dep't of Corr. v. Gibson, 308 N.C. 131, 136 (1983)).

         An ADEA plaintiff may prove age discrimination in one of two ways: by proving a “prima facie case” of age discrimination, which establishes a rebuttable presumption that the employer violated the ADEA; or by offering direct or circumstantial evidence of an employer's discriminatory animus. Arthur v. Pet Dairy, 593 Fed.Appx. 211, 216 (4th Cir. 2015) (unpublished); see Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Mgmt., Inc., 354 F.3d 277, 284 (4th Cir. 2004) (en banc), abrogated in part by Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167 (2009). Regardless of the method chosen, it remains the plaintiff's ultimate burden to prove that his age was the but-for cause of the adverse employment action. See Gross, 557 U.S. at 180. Here, Plaintiff claims she provided evidence establishing a genuine dispute as to whether she can make out a prima facie case of age discrimination.[1]

         A. Prima Facie Case

         An ADEA plaintiff may establish a presumption of discrimination by making out a prima facie case of age discrimination under McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green and its progeny. 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973); see Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142-43 (2000); St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506-07 (1993); Arthur, 593 Fed.Appx. at 216-17. Though “the plaintiff's burden is not onerous, ” she must nevertheless prove her prima facie case by a preponderance of the evidence. Warch v. Ohio Cas. Ins. Co., 435 F.3d 510, 515 (4th Cir. 2006). To establish a prima facie case for termination on the basis of age, the plaintiff must show (1) she was a member of the protected class, namely, “individuals who are at least 40 years of age, ” 29 U.S.C. § 631(a); (2) she was performing her job duties according to her employer's legitimate expectations at the time of termination; (3) she was terminated; and (4) she was replaced by a substantially younger individual. Hill, 354 F.3d at 285; Arthur, 593 Fed.Appx. at 216-17.

         Whether an employee met her employer's legitimate expectations at the time of termination depends on the “perception of the decision maker . . ., not the self-assessment of the plaintiff, ” and not the opinions of the plaintiff's coworkers. Hawkins v. PepsiCo, Inc., 203 F.3d 274, 280 (4th Cir. 2000). And because it is the plaintiff's burden to persuade the trier of fact that she met her employer's legitimate subjective employment expectations, at the prima facie stage, the Court must consider the employer's “evidence that the employee was not meeting those expectations.” Arthur, 593 Fed.Appx. at 217 (quoting Warch, 435 F.3d at 516). Otherwise, it would be “difficult to imagine a case where an employee could not satisfy the . . . legitimate expectation element.” Id.

         (1) Over 40 Years of Age.

Plaintiff was 62 years old at the time of the adverse employment action. See Pl.'s Resp. Mem. (#25) at 2. This element is not in dispute.[2]

         (2) Employer's Legitimate Expectations.

As to the second element, Defendants argue Plaintiff was not performing her job duties pursuant to Cleveland-CC's legitimate expectations when she was told her contract would not be renewed. Plaintiff contends her “evaluations from her managers over the years reflected her success in the program, ” and that “through her last evaluation in May, 2016, plaintiff's performance in her position was not questioned.” See Pl.'s Resp. Mem. (#25) at 4. “While her disciplined teaching and testing style drew some complaints, primarily from students who could not succeed, it was recognized, at least implicitly, that her performance was beyond satisfactory. In fact, plaintiff never received any specific criticism for her performance.” Id.

         Defendants do not dispute that Plaintiff was well qualified for the Discipline Coordinator role, nor do they repudiate Plaintiff's knowledge or skill in the area of surgical technology. In fact, Defendants commended Plaintiff's competency during oral arguments and expressed appreciation for her years of service in the position. Defendants maintain, however, that there were several problems with her methods and practices as a surgical technology instructor which prevented her from meeting Cleveland-CC's “legitimate expectations” when she was terminated.

         Defendants presented evidence showing Plaintiff's performance issues were well-documented and that complaints about Plaintiff were brought to Dr. Sain's attention several times over the years. See generally Leonard Performance Evaluations (#23-18) (showing all but three of Leonard's annual employment evaluations from 2005 through 2016); see also Sain Dep. (#20-1) at 34:6-24, 104:25-105:4 (noting that complaints about Plaintiff “became more frequent” in 2010 and that she “had coached Ms. Leonard for the last six years, strongly coached Ms. Leonard into changing her behavior, her reputation with the clinical sites, and . . . the way that she worked with her colleagues”). This evidence contradicts Plaintiff's assertion that she “never received any specific criticism for her performance.” Pl.'s Resp. Mem. (#25) at 4.

         Defendants claim Plaintiff did not meet their legitimate expectations because her “unprofessional and disruptive” behavior made the school's program and reputation suffer. They claim her behavior garnered complaints from students, fellow Cleveland-CC instructors, hospitals/clinical sites that participated in the program, and even administrators from partnering colleges. See Defs.' Mem. (#20) at 3-9. According to her annual employment evaluations, Plaintiff was at least generally aware that complaints had been made against her. See, e.g., Defs.' Reply Mem. (#26) at 4-6 (citing various complaints that were noted in Plaintiff's annual employment evaluations)[3]; see generally Leonard Performance Evaluations (#23-18); but see supra section B.1. The employment evaluations also indicate Plaintiff was informed about the school's dissatisfaction with her low recruitment and retention rates, advised that she need to increase her performance in both areas, and “continuously coached” by Dr. Sain on improving student interactions. See Defs.' Mem. (#20) at 5.[4]

         However, overall, Plaintiff's annual employment reviews were generally very positive. Throughout her employment, Plaintiff received encouraging feedback from Dr. Sain about her performance as Discipline Coordinator. Though she received poor markings in areas such as “Interpersonal Skills/Professionalism” and upholding the integrity of the college, see Leonard Performance Evaluations (#23-18) at 14-15, 29, she received satisfactory markings in most other areas, such as “Facilitating Instruction” and “Instructional Support.” See id. at 13, 27. Thus, while her evaluations contained negative comments, they gave an overarching impression of general satisfaction mixed with constructive criticism. The Court is mindful that “an employee's perception of [her] own performance cannot establish a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employee was meeting [her] employer's legitimate expectations, ” Wood v. Town of Warsaw, N.C. , 914 F.Supp.2d 735, 744 (E.D. N.C. 2012) (citing King v. Rumsfeld, 328 F.3d 145, 149 (4th Cir. 2003)), but the Court must likewise be mindful of how well Defendants conveyed their expectations to Plaintiff. And given the generally positive nature of Plaintiff's employment reviews, the Court is hard-pressed to conclude there is no evidence upon which a reasonable jury could find Plaintiff was meeting Cleveland-CC's legitimate expectations when she was terminated. In the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the second element is established.

         (3) Adverse Employment Action (Termination).

A plaintiff must prove she suffered an “adverse employment action” to bring an ADEA claim. “An adverse employment action is a discriminatory act which adversely affects the terms, conditions or benefits of the plaintiff's employment, ” James v. Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Inc., 368 F.3d 371, 375 (4th Cir. 2004), and “constitutes a significant change in employment status.” Darnell v. Tyson Foods, Inc., No. 3:11CV473, 2012 WL 6093076, at *5 (W.D. N.C. Dec. 7, 2012), aff'd, 536 Fed.Appx. 366 (4th Cir. 2013). Termination, failure to hire, and failure to renew an employment agreement all constitute adverse employment actions. Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 761 (1998).

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff was not “terminated” because she was employed under a year-to-year contract and was paid through the remainder of her final term. Defendants contend that Plaintiff had no continued interest in the position or right to employment beyond the expiration of the term and they argue this matter should be evaluated as a “failure to hire” case. However, as previously stated, see supra note 3, whether the adverse employment action is labelled as a “termination” or a “failure to hire” is “not critical to the legal analysis.” Leibowitz, 584 F.3d at 501. Plaintiff must establish only that an adverse employment action has taken place, which she has done. And while Defendants do not concede that Plaintiff was “terminated, ” they do not dispute that failing to renew her employment contract was an adverse employment action. As such, the third element is satisfied.[5]

         (4) Substantially ...

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