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Melissa Jay Craig v. Columbia College Chicago

February 15, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marvin E. Aspen, District Judge:


Presently before us is a motion for summary judgment brought by Defendant Columbia College Chicago ("Columbia"). This matter arises from the Columbia's employment of Plaintiff, Melissa Jay Craig. In her complaint, Craig alleges that Columbia discriminated against her in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794. Specifically, Craig alleges that Columbia discriminated against her on the basis of her disability, a hearing disorder, by (1) failing to select her for a tenure-track position, (2) terminating her employment, and (3) failing to provide her with reasonable accommodations. Columbia filed an answer denying all allegations of fault and now seeks summary judgment on all issues. For the reasons set forth below, we grant the motion in part and deny it in part.


Craig began her employment at Columbia in 1994. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 1.) She has a bachelor's and master's degree in fine arts from the Art Institute of Chicago. She started teaching in Columbia's Interdisciplinary Arts Department ("Department") in 1996, began working as a full-time non-tenure track faculty member in 2001, and had worked exclusively in the Department teaching graduate level and thesis courses and supervising graduate students on independent studies since 2005. (Id. ¶¶ 2--3; Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 2--3.) She received awards, including the all-college Excellence in Teaching Award for full-time faculty in 2002, an Excellence in Teaching Fellowship from 2002--2004, and the Columbia College Chicago Faculty Development Grant in 2008. (Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 4.)

Craig also suffers from a degenerative hearing loss in both ears, which causes her difficulty hearing. Even with a hearing aid, she relies on reading lips and body language to communicate. Her hearing loss significantly interferes with her ability to communicate by telephone and understand dialogue in group settings. (Id. ¶ 1.)

I. The Tenure Track Position

In 2007, the Department posted an invitation for applications for a new tenure-track position. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 10.) The search committee for the new hire included Michelle Citron, the Chair of the Department, Jeff Abell and Clifton Meador, tenured faculties members, and Arti Sandhu, a member of the Art & Design Department. (Id. ¶ 14.) Citron, as one of the people who drafted the job description, explained that they placed direction of the Department's papermaking studio as the first responsibility in the description to alert applicants that it was considered to be a critical aspect of the new job. (Id. ¶¶ 11--13.) Craig and another former faculty member assert that Meador told Craig and others that the position was "written for her." (Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 23.) However, Meador testified that he never made such a comment. (Def. Resp. to Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 23.)*fn1

Craig applied for the position, and both parties agree that she was qualified for it. (Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 22.) When Craig interviewed for the position, she informed the committee that she had difficulty communicating by telephone and was given an in-person interview. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 15.) After becoming one of the final two applicants, Craig participated in on-campus interviews and gave a public presentation. (Id. ¶¶ 16, 18.) Columbia asserts that each applicant was asked the same questions during the interview. (Pl. Resp. to Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 20.) Craig, however, explains that her interview also included questions regarding Craig's use of email to communicate. (Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 24.) The other final candidate was Melissa Potter. Potter had previously worked at Dieu Donne, a premier papermaking studio in New York city, had received two Fulbright Scholarships, had built a papermaking studio in Serbia, and had overseen its operations while teaching students there. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 22--23.)

After the interviews and presentations, the Dean asked the search committee for their opinion of the two candidates based on the criteria set forth for the job. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 32.) The committee composed a memorandum promoting both Craig and Potter as recommended candidates. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 31.) While the formal communication did not include ranking, Citron recommended Potter for the position in a private conversation and articulated his belief that Potter would better incorporate theory into the Department.*fn2 (Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 25; Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 38.) Then, upon the recommendation of the Dean and with the approval of the Provost, the tenure-track position was offered to Potter in April 2008. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 40.)

Citron explained that Craig did not receive the offer partially because the committee members faulted Craig for failing to discuss the relationship between theory and practice during her public presentation or to address it satisfactorily during her interview. (Id. ¶ 24.) In fact, Citron believed that Craig felt the department was becoming too conceptually based. (Id. ¶ 7.) In support of this belief, Columbia offers Abell's testimony stating that Craig commented during faculty meetings attended by Citron that the changes toward a theory-focused curriculum would undervalue what the school had accomplished in the past. (Id. ¶¶ 7--8.) Craig denies that she made these statements. (Pl. Resp. to Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 8--9.) She asserts that she never expressed hostility to a theoretical approach and advocated for inclusion of all approaches to artwork. (Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 20.) There is additional evidence, presented in the form of Abell's testimony, that Potter's and Craig's public lectures were in direct contrast on the issue of theory. Specifically, Abell believed that Craig did not consider theory to be worthwhile, while Potter discussed her engagement with current ideas and writing and thinking on the topic. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 25--27.)

Craig responds by explaining that theory was not a required part of the presentation. (Pl. Resp. to Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 26.) She further argues that she did address the conceptual development of her work in her presentation and that the committee should have been able to consider other evidence of her approach to theory from her time teaching at Columbia. (Id. ¶ 24.) After the Fellowship, Craig asserts, and Columbia denies, that she incorporated theoretical approaches into her art practice and teaching. (Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 5; Def. Resp. to Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 5.) Both parties agree that after the Fellowship, she created a course called the Teaching Artist, in which she presented some of the theory discussed in the Fellowship, as well as her own independent research on other theoretical approaches, and designed a syllabus to incorporate theory into the curriculum. (Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 6.) Craig also participated in writing the new curriculum after the Department decided to focus more on theory. (Id. ¶ 20.) Craig introduced evidence that the former Department Chair described Craig as having an "understanding of the fine balance between theory and technique, which helped Columbia to develop a complex, multi-disciplined curriculum that was highly instrumental in the success of the program." (Id. ¶ 9.)

Outside of the candidates' views on theory, there is evidence that, despite her inexperience teaching, the committee felt Potter was a better candidate. First, the tenure-track position called for a creative artist, and acquisition of an artist who operated at a national level was considered important to the program's ability to recruit; thus the search committee sought evidence of the candidates' creative output in national exhibits. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 28--29.) Potter presented the committee with evidence of national exhibitions; the parties dispute whether Craig did as well. (Id. ¶ 30; Pl. Resp. to. Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 30.) Second, Citron asserts that her concern regarding supervision of the papermaking studio and her knowledge of Potter's experience putting together and supervising a papermaking studio led her to recommend Potter for the position. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶¶ 35, 37.) Abell also testified that he considered Potter to be a superior artist and paper maker. (Id. ¶ 21.) Craig had never overseen a paper studio, though Craig asserts that she contributed to its management while it lacked a named director. (Id. ¶ 36; Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 8.) Nonetheless, Columbia maintains that Citron did not believe that Craig was equipped to run the studio. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 39.) In addition, Craig presents evidence that two people unrelated to the search sent letters to the committee expressing their view that Potter was not qualified for the position; Citron states that she felt one of the letters came from a credible source. (Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 28.)

ii. Communications between Craig and Citron

As Chair of the Department, Citron was Craig's supervisor. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 41.) The parties agree that Citron and Craig had trouble communicating. When Citron complained about the style of Craig's emails, Craig explained that she has to send many more emails than the average person, and as a result, her emails are often short and to the point. (Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 19.) Citron asserts that in the Spring of 2008 Craig insisted that an HR representative attend each meeting; Craig states that she only requested a third-party be present when the topic of the meeting was her employment. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 56; Pl. Resp. to Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 56.) Citron further testified that she told Craig to stop by her office periodically to talk and that she was not aware that Craig ever complied with this request. (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 55.) Craig, however, claims that Citron never made that request; instead, a representative of the HR department, who attended a meeting between Craig and Citron at Craig's request, suggested that the two have periodic meetings. (Pl. Resp. to Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 55.) The parties also dispute whether Citron was available for "stop-by" meetings or whether she typically required formal appointments. (Id.)

Shortly after Potter was offered the position, Citron sent an email to Craig explaining that Craig was highly considered but another candidate had been offered the position; the email also stated that Citron would be happy to meet with Craig for further discussions. (Def. Ex. H (April 10, 2008, Email).) Craig responded: "Since it is done, there is nothing to discuss.- - - I was the strongest candidate, with the most experience by far. - - - This is a deliberate, gross injustice, of which you are all fully aware." (Id.) After Meador sent another email asking to speak with Craig, Craig responded by sending an email to Meador, Citron, and Abell declining to meet and stating: "Your credibility with me is .0002%, and falling." (Def. Ex. I (April 14, 2008, Email).) Craig continued to decline offers to meet with committee members for about a week following the decision, stating she was upset, believed an injustice had been done, and was not ready to talk about it. (Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 33.) When Citron and Craig did meet, Craig asserts that Citron shouted at her for drawing in meetings; Citron denies this and explains that they had a conversation about Craig drawing during meetings, when she seemingly needed to be looking up to read lips, but that Citron accepted Craig's reasons for doing so*fn3 and let the topic go. (Id. ¶ 34; Def. Resp. to Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 34.) Craig also states that, at this meeting, she was given four reasons why she did not receive the promotion: she drew, she kept a blog, she did not speak up enough at meetings, and she was an inferior paper maker compared to Potter. (Pl. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 34.) Craig explained to Citron that her oral participation in meetings was affected by the fact that she could often not clearly hear what was being said. (Id. ¶ 21.) Craig believes that she always followed up on important matters that were discussed in the meetings. (Id.)

In September 2008, Craig responded to an email requesting input from faculty members on proposed criteria for the rank of full professors by sending an email to Citron and other department faculty stating: "I have to say that I'm actually offended by being required to attend this discussion. What is the point? I have, as you tenured faculty so eloquently demonstrated you believe, nothing to contribute. And I am uninterested in how you propose to rank yourselves." (Def. 56.1 Stat. ¶ 45.) Craig continued to sporadically send similar emails focusing on the difference between tenured and non-tenured faculty. (Id. ¶¶ 46--50.) Craig also sent an email to an HR representative for the school explaining ...

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