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Sterling Sawyer v. Columbia College

March 19, 2012

STERLING SAWYER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COLUMBIA COLLEGE, ET. AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Sterling Sawyer claims that he was discriminated against on the basis of his race and gender when he was terminated from his employment at Columbia College ("the College"), and suspended for one calendar year. Plaintiff brings claims against the College for race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. Defendant has moved for summary judgment [61]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Defendant's motion for summary judgment [61].

I. Background

Plaintiff, an African-American male, was a student enrolled in Columbia College in the fall semester of 2002, the fall semester of 2007, and the spring semester of 2008. During fall semester 2002, Plaintiff took four classes and received three C's and one D. Plaintiff left the College and did not return until the fall semester of 2007. Plaintiff returned to the College in September 2007, attended two fall semester classes, and received a C and a C in those classes. Plaintiff discussed the C with his professor and the grade was ultimately changed to an A-.

In approximately January 2008, Plaintiff began working for Youth Communication Chicago ("Youth Communication") as part of Defendant's work-study program.*fn1 In addition to the work-study program, Plaintiff was enrolled in Introduction to Marketing and Producing Recorded Music at the College. Plaintiff received a D in Introduction to Marketing and a C in Producing Recorded Music. Plaintiff took issue with his Introduction to Marketing grade. On June 18, 2008, Plaintiff e-mailed J. Dennis Rich ("Rich"), an administrator at the College, challenging the grade. Concurrently, Plaintiff e-mailed Colleen Flanigan ("Flanigan"), his Introduction to Marketing professor, asking if there was any way for him to raise his grade. Flanigan is a white female. In his deposition, Plaintiff testified that he "guess[ed]" Flanigan once told him "you people need to learn how to turn your work in on time." Plaintiff believed this comment was directed at him because he was the only African-American in the class. Sawyer Dep., 94:5-95:25, 96:7-9.

On June 18, 2008, Rich responded to Plaintiff's e-mail and advised him of the steps he needed to take to appeal his grade, which were also outlined in the student handbook. On June 20, 2008, Plaintiff e-mailed Rich and alleged that he was not given the same opportunities as other students because he was the only African-American in the class. Rich responded to Plaintiff on June 20, 2008, advised him of the steps he needed to take to follow through on his claim and asked him to document all instances of racial discrimination that may have occurred in the class. Rich also asked Plaintiff to send him his coursework from the Introduction to Marketing class for Rich's review. On June 21, 2008, Plaintiff replied, but did not provide the information Rich requested; rather, Plaintiff requested a meeting to discuss the matter in person. There is no evidence in the record that Rich was ever apprised of the specific interactions between Plaintiff and Flanigan that were discussed in Plaintiff's deposition. Furthermore, there is no evidence in the record that Plaintiff ever provided any documentation relating to the alleged discrimination.

On June 23, 2008, in the midst of his grade appeal, Plaintiff was involved in a physical altercation with a female African-American student, Ginger Bush, in the Youth Communication offices. Plaintiff testifies that Bush began arguing with Plaintiff, "smacked him in the face," threw a milkshake at him, and then continued to attack him physically. Sawyer Dep., 67:23-70:15. Plaintiff then physically "pushed [Bush] up off of [him]" and the altercation ended when Phil Costello, a white Youth Communication supervisor, intervened. Sawyer Dep., 75:10-24. Costello e-mailed a report of the incident to two Columbia College officials stating that he left his office when the argument "escalated beyond appropriate levels" and witnessed "[Plaintiff] holding back [Bush's] right hand and [Plaintiff"s] right hand on [Bush's] hair." See Beverly Anderson Affidavit ("Anderson Aff."), Ex. 3. The hair pulling is corroborated by Kevin Sparrow, Youth Communication's Manager of Multimedia, who witnessed the tail end of the altercation. In an e-mail, Sparrow wrote:

Shortly after 11:00am on June 23rd, I heard some voices being raised out in the main room from my office. The sounds quieted down until I heard a splashing sound, which was a milkshake being thrown as we later discovered the splatter on our wall, and then of chairs scuffling across the floor. I got up to check on the situation, and I saw Phil [Costello] exit his office and go directly to [Bush] and [Plaintiff]. [Plaintiff] was pulling [Bush's] hair, and [Bush] was pushing and scratching [Plaintiff's] arm. After a few seconds, [Costello] was able to separate the two.

Anderson Aff., Ex. 4. Samori Wood, an African-American Youth Communication employee, was in the room with Plaintiff and Bush throughout the entire event and described the altercation in an e-mail:

After about a minute and a half of arguing, [Plainitff] made one last comment that sent [Bush] over the edge and she slapped him on the right side of the face and took a step back. Shocked and stunned, [Plaintiff] sat in the chair and paused in disbelief for maybe five second[s]. He then got up and I as well got up. As he walked toward [Bush], I took five steps away from the scene to make sure I did not get involved in any form or fashion. While I watched from a distance, I saw [Bush] chuck her milkshake at [Plaintiff]. I assume she thought he was about to hit her.

As she threw the milkshake [Plaintiff] ducked but it still managed to graze the top of his head before it splattered against the wall. [Plaintiff] still continued to walk toward [Bush], and again she tried to slap him, but he grabbed a hold of right hand to stop her. [Bush] began to scratch him on the right side of his face and his left arm; so [Plaintiff] grabbed her by her hair as well to try to restrain her. At that time our boss Phil Costello came out from his office, walked passed me to get them to try and pull them apart. After fifteen to twenty seconds he was able to separate them.

Anderson Aff., Ex. 5. In his deposition, Plaintiff stated that:

What happened was -- well, I didn't grab her hair or -- like I say, I didn't engage or try to retaliate or like the impression that you're trying to give or your interpretation of what he's [Samori Wood] saying is not what happened. I didn't grab her hair or grab her wrist or anything like that and, you know, to try to retaliate or engage or hurt her, because she smacked me. I didn't do that.

Sawyer Dep., 74:13-22.

The details of the Youth Communications incident were sent to Beverly Anderson ("Anderson"), an African-American woman and the College's Assistant Dean of Student Health and Support, for an investigation of the incident. As part of her review, Anderson reviewed documents describing two additional incidents involving Plaintiff that occurred on February 15, 2007, and August 15, 2007.

Although the exact details of the February 15, 2007 incident are in dispute, Plaintiff does not dispute that, as part of her investigation, Anderson reviewed the facts as described in the "Columbia College Incident or Discrepancy Report" that was prepared directly after the February 15 altercation. On February 15, 2007, Plaintiff was visiting the College's administrative office to re-enroll for the fall semester when he ran into his then-girlfriend, Iola Benjamin. Sawyer Dep., 21:5-25. In the Columbia College Incident or Discrepancy Report, Sgt. Johnny Gratton coded the incident as a "Disturbance (fight)" and wrote:

I witnessed a physical altercation between two (non current) students. Male identified as [Plaintiff] and female identified as Iola Benjamin which took place in the Hokin Gallery. I quickly intervened and escorted [Plaintiff] out of the building. I spoke with Ms. Benjamin in private to ask what happened and if she needs medical attention and her concern was that we do not kick [Plaintiff] out of school or call police.

Anderson Aff., Ex. 1. The Hokin Gallery is part of the Columbia College campus. After the incident, Iola Benjamin gave the following statement to Columbia security:

So I stood up and asked my friend if he was done using my phone, he said sure but my boyfriend [Plaintiff] put the phone in his pocket and said "B----, this ain't yo' phone" so I tried to pull the phone out of his pocket, he kept blocking me so I said please and kept reaching. He started threatening to "slap the s--- outta me" so I grabbed the arm of his coat to keep him from blocking me. My friend and his friend left and I guess that pissed him off cuz he stood up. When he stood up, I tried to get him to calm down and sit down when he started attacking me and security stopped him from continuing.

Anderson Aff., Ex. 1.

Plaintiff denies that the report accurately depicted the incident.*fn2 Plaintiff asserts that he was in the building to re-enroll for the fall when he saw Benjamin and began speaking with her about the state of their relationship. Sawyer Dep., 21:5-22:7. After engaging in a "normal conversation," Benjamin "grabbed [Plaintiff's] hand" and the two were eventually separated by a Columbia security guard. Sawyer Dep. 22:7-23:12. ...


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