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Dr. William Stevens v. Board of Trustees

September 9, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Herndon, Chief Judge


Before the Court is defendants the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University ("SIU"), Dr. John Koropchak, Dr. Prudence Rice, and Dr. Gary Kinsel's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 51) with regard to plaintiff Dr. William Stevens' three count complaint alleging violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12111 et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., and retaliation under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. For the reasons that follow, defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. 51) is denied.

I. Background

Construing all facts and drawing all inferences from the record in f a v o r o f plaintiff, Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986), as the Court must, the record reflects the following facts, many of which are in dispute. Dr. Stevens was hired by SIU in 1989 as the Director of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance ("NMR") facility. As Director, part of Dr. Stevens duties included maintaining and repairing two very powerful, sophisticated NMR instruments. The maintenance and repair of these instruments was very technical and required the expertise of someone like Dr. Stevens. At times, it also required an additional set of hands to assist with some of the maintenance and repairs. The actual amount of additional time and assistance needed is in dispute. Nevertheless, according to the position description, a half-time assistant was assigned to the Director to assist him with his duties. This position description, which in its current form may be outdated, provided, in relevant part, that the Director handles "day-to-day operation of the facility, including scheduling of runs, set up of non-routine experiments, routine-maintenance, service, repair and including purchasing and supervision of half-time assistant." (Doc. 51-1, p. 12).

When Dr. Stevens first started he had a graduate assistant, but that position went away in approximately 1992 or 1993 until 2006 due to a lack of funding. During this time period it appears, however, that Dr. Stevens did receive assistance from the principle electronics technician at SIU until that position was eliminated. Starting again in 2006, until Dr. Stevens' position ended with SIU, Dr. Stevens had a graduate assistant at various times. The graduate assistant was either classified as a quarter-time assistant (less than 10 hours a week) or a half-time assistant (less than 20 hours a week) and may not have been available during periods when the university was not in session, i.e., over breaks or in between semesters.

The record further reflects a strained relationship between Dr. Stevens and many of the faculty and staff at SIU. One of the most damaged relationships appeared to be the relationship between Dr. Stevens and Dr. Prudence Rice, Dr. Steven's immediate supervisor. While the source and extent of the bad blood between Dr. Stevens and Dr. Rice is not entirely clear -- there is evidence of a written reprimand to Dr. Stevens from Dr. Rice regarding a threat Dr. Stevens made after receiving unwanted email -- what is clear, is that there was a lack of effective communication between Dr. Rice and Dr. Stevens. And while Dr. Rice was technically Dr. Stevens supervisor, it appears that she tried to delegate much of those responsibilities to other faculty, and generally did not speak to Dr. Stevens. Indeed, while SIU policy called for annual reviews and while Dr. Stevens received a review every year until 2000 when Dr. Rice became his supervisor, Dr. Rice failed to give Dr. Stevens a review until 2008 when she delegated that task to Dr. Boyd Goodson, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. But before we get to that review, part of SIU's alleged basis for Dr. Stevens' demotion to a term position, a few more background facts need to be set forth.

In 2006, Dr. Stevens started having back problems that he originally thought resulted from an exercise injury. (Doc. 51-2, p. 32). Dr. Stevens back problems resulted in Dr. Stevens working in "substantial pain" in order to fulfill his job requirements. Dr. Stevens indicated that when he started having back problems he "was unable to do magnet fills and an awful lot of repair, inspection and cleaning . . . without incurring substantial pain." (Doc. 51-14, p. 14). "So [Dr. Stevens] worked in pain." (Doc. 51-14, p. 14). These back problems persisted for years and affected Dr. Stevens work performance.

It was no secret that Dr. Stevens had wanted a full-time, permanent assistant to assist him in the NMR facility, and he had made these requests before he ever started having back problems. It was also no secret, however, that after Dr. Stevens became injured, he sought out additional help due to the limitations caused by his health problems. In as early as February 2007, Dr. Stevens began inquiring about obtaining "proper staffing in perpetuity" in an email he sent to Dr. Kinsel, the Chair of the Chemistry Department at SIU. Dr. Stevens also copied Dr. Rice on this email. (Doc. 51-2, p. 32). Dr. Stevens request for help continued throughout 2007 (Doc. 51-2, p. 35, 38, 42) and his approach in making his requests strained many of his relationships with some of the other faculty, including Dr. Kinsel who agreed with Dr. Steven's suggestion that it may be time for him to seek other opportunities elsewhere. (Doc. 51-2, p.42). In 2008, Dr. Stevens' physicians started placing medical restrictions on Stevens' work. Dr. Stevens was struggling to perform his work duties and the faculty, staff, and students were aware of his problems as evidenced by emails, a medical record given to Dr. Rice in May of 2008 noting Dr. Stevens' restrictions along with a hand-written note stating "[Dr. Rice] -- I still need help with work[.] [-] [Dr. Stevens]," the performance evaluation completed by the Graduate Council, and the performance evaluation conducted by Dr. Goodson.

Indeed, the "Report on the Research Facilities / Program Review Committee on the Graduate Council" issued by the Graduate Council in May 2009 stated the following:

The University would also do well to fund a Graduate Assistant, and to make available reliable electronic repair and maintenance technicians. Dr. Stevens needs regular assistance, at the very least, a part-time assistant to help with the cryogenic fills and setting up user accounts. The observed need for a graduate assistant assigned to the Facility on a regular basis was also shared by current NMR users.

Dr. Stevens lost his GA and that meant he had no relief from doing repairs and maintenance requiring repetitive motions. He does this in a space so cramped that his body is forced into stress positions. Over time that has injured him and his doctor says that recovery is only possible if he leaves the lab. But if he leaves the lab, there is no one to take over his duties and researchers suffer delays. Because he is dedicated, he cuts short his recovery and attends to the lab, which helps the researchers but exacerbates the medical condition created by having no one to relieve him, by him having to do repetitive motions in stress positions. If additional staff rae [sic] are not provided it doesn't matter who is Director: at some point in time, repetitive motion and stress positions may injure the Director, and cryogenic ills could be compromised.

The extended time that the instruments have been "off line" are a concern. Both the solids installation and Mercury 400 repair were delayed in part due to the difficulty experienced by Varian's installation engineers. The Inova 500 went down during Dr. Stevens health leave and there was no Facility staff to deal with that situation. The addition of staff would address some of these issues but not the apparent difficulty securing timely and responsive repair from the instrument manufacturers. According to Dr. Stevens, the more experienced and competent NMR engineers work through third-party companies such as Triangle Analytical and Open Technologies, although they have limited access to parts.

Dr. Stevens is able to make minor repairs to the equipment, but does not have a background in electronics. Given the sophistication of the Facility instrumentation, personnel highly skilled in electronics should be available to assist with regular maintenance and repair of the NMR equipment. (Doc. 52-2, p. 28).

Furthermore, as previously mentioned above, rather than reviewing Dr. Stevens herself, Dr. Rice delegated Dr. Stevens' annual review to Dr. Boyd Goodson, apparently the first review he received since Dr. Rice came to SUI in 2000, On November 15, 2009, Dr. Goodson completed Dr. Stevens' "Administrative Professional Employee Performance Evaluation" for the time period November 15, 2008, through November 19, 2009. (Doc. 51-1, p. 28). Dr. Stevens was to be rated as either unsatisfactory, marginal, effective, highly effective, or outstanding for the following job performance factors: 1) job knowledge, 2) quality of work, 3) productivity, communication and teamwork, 4) professionalism, 5) problem solving, decision making and judgment, 6) adaptability, 7) customer service, 8) adherence to guidelines, 9) leadership and supervision, 10) organization and planning; 11) knowledge, use and care of equipment, and 12) safety and security. (Doc. 51-1, p. 30-34). Dr. Goodson rated Dr. Stevens as highly effective for the knowledge, use and care of equipment, and safety and security factors. (Doc. 51-1, p. 36). Dr. Stevens was rated effective for the job knowledge, problem solving, decision making and judgment, adaptability, and ...

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