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Hatcherr v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

October 30, 2017

LAURA J. HATCHER, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          NANCY J. ROSENSTENGEL United States District Judge.

         A Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 132) filed by Defendant Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University is pending before the Court. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion for Summary Judgment is denied.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Dr. Laura Hatcher was a non-tenured associate professor in the political science department at Southern Illinois University (the University) in 2012, when she was denied tenure and lost her teaching position. (Doc. 133, pp. 3-8). In the years leading up to her tenure review (specifically from July 2006 to September 2011), Dr. Hatcher's annual work evaluations were consistently positive. Hatcher v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois Univ., 829 F.3d 531, 535 (7th Cir. 2016).

         The tenure review process at the University is a multi-level, sequential process. The tenure candidate is first evaluated by the tenured faculty and chairperson of the respective department, followed by the College of Liberal Arts' Promotion and Tenure Committee, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and then the Provost and Vice Chancellor of the University. Id. At each level, the previous recommendations are reviewed, and an independent evaluation is conducted. Candidates are evaluated in three categories: scholarship, teaching, and service. (Doc. 82-4, pp. 2-3).

         Dr. Hatcher's tenure review process began positively. First, the political science department voted 4-2 in favor of tenure and promotion, resulting in department chair Roger Clinton making a positive recommendation to the College of Liberal Arts. Id. The tenure committee for the College of Liberal Arts gave Dr. Hatcher a mixed recommendation that consisted of a 5-4 vote in favor of tenure but a 5-4 vote against promotion. (Doc. 82-11, p. 1). This recommendation was communicated to the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Kimberly Kempf-Leonard. (Doc. 82-11, p. 1). Dean Kempf-Leonard both evaluated the committee's recommendation and conducted her own independent review. (Doc. 86-1). Dean Kempf-Leonard ultimately recommended Dr. Hatcher not receive tenure or promotion, and she conveyed this conclusion and her reasoning to Provost John Nicklow. (Doc. 86-1, p. 1). Provost Nicklow reviewed Dr. Hatcher's tenure dossier for himself and made a recommendation to Dr. Cheng against awarding Dr. Hatcher tenure or promotion. (Doc. 82-13, p. 1).

         On April 12, 2012, after Dr. Hatcher received a letter from the Provost informing her of his recommendation against tenure and promotion, she filed a grievance with the University's Judicial Review Board (JRB). (Doc. 133, p. 6). On October 3, 2012, Dr. Hatcher also filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging the real reason the University denied her tenure and promotion was her gender. (Doc. 133, p. 6). Fifteen days later, the JRB issued its unanimous report concluding Provost Nicklow had violated the procedures outlined in the operating papers of the Political Science Department and the College of Liberal Arts, as well as the University's policies and procedures. (Doc. 82-19, p. 10). In particular, the JRB found Provost Nicklow did not explain in detail how he reached his decision and why he reversed the Political Science Department's recommendation in favor of Dr. Hatcher. (Doc. 82-19, pp. 10-11). Based on its finding of "serious procedural errors, " the JRB recommended overturning the negative decision of Provost Nicklow and promoting Dr. Hatcher to Associate Professor with tenure. (Doc. 82-19, p. 12).

         Contrary to the JRB's report and recommendations, and approximately eight weeks after Dr. Hatcher filed her EEOC charge, Dr. Cheng recommended the board deny promotion and tenure to Dr. Hatcher. (Doc. 82-21, p. 1).

         Dr. Hatcher filed this lawsuit against the Board on April 26, 2013, alleging gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a retaliation claim based on the First Amendment, and two retaliation claims based on Title VII. (Doc. 2). This Court granted the Board's motions to dismiss on Dr. Hatcher's Title VII and First Amendment claims (Doc. 70), as well as the Board's motion for summary judgment on her gender discrimination claim (Doc. 95).

         Dr. Hatcher appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. (Doc. 99). The Court of Appeals affirmed this Court's decision to dismiss Dr. Hatcher's gender discrimination claim, First Amendment retaliation claim, and one of her Title VII retaliation claims, Hatcher, 829 F.3d at 538-42, but reversed and remanded this Court's dismissal of Dr. Hatcher's claim alleging retaliation for filing of her EEOC charge. Id. The Court of Appeals reasoned that since filing an EEOC charge is a protected activity under Title VII and Dr. Hatcher indisputably suffered an adverse employment action, discovery on the issue of causation was appropriate. Id. at 538.

         After the close of discovery, the Board filed the pending Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 132). Dr. Hatcher filed a timely Response in Opposition (Doc. 135), and the Board filed a Reply (Doc. 136).

         Analysis

         Summary judgment is proper only where the moving party can demonstrate that no genuine issue of material fact exists and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Ruffin-Thompkins v. Experian Information Solutions, Inc., 422 F.3d 603, 607 (7th Cir. 2005). All facts and reasonable inferences must be construed in favor of the non-moving party. Blow v. Bijora, Inc., 855 F.3d 793, 797 (7th Cir. 2017) (citing Calumet River Fleeting, Inc. v. Int'l Union of Operating Eng'rs, Local 150, AFL-CIO, 824 F.3d 645, 647-48 (7th Cir. 2016)). The Seventh Circuit has clearly stated motions for summary judgment in discrimination cases must be decided with particular care, given "they often turn on questions of credibility and intent." Veprinsky v. Fluor Daniel, Inc., 87 F.3d 881, 893 (7th Cir. 1996). Thus, only where the evidence is merely colorable or not significantly probative is summary judgment proper. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50 (1986). The judge's role at summary judgment is not to weigh the evidence or assess the facts, but simply to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 259. The question is can there be only one reasonable conclusion based on the evidence, or could reasonable minds differ? Id. at 250-511.

         To state a claim for Title VII retaliation, a plaintiff must show she suffered an adverse employment action because of a statutorily protected activity. Castro v. DeVry Univ. Inc., 786 F.3d 559, 564 (7th Cir. 2015). In short, the plaintiff must prove a causal link between the protected activity she engaged in and the adverse employment action. Id. The causal link required in this context is but-for causation. Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2534 (2013); Hobgood v. Ill. Gaming Bd., 731 F.3d 635, 643 (7th Cir. 2013). The relevant question is whether "the record contains sufficient evidence to permit a reasonable fact finder to conclude that retaliatory motive caused the discharge." Lord v. High Voltage Software, Inc., 839 F.3d 556, 563 (7th Cir. 2016).

         When circumstantial evidence of a retaliatory motive is used to prove causation, the employer may show the employee would have suffered the adverse employment action even absent the protected activity.[1] Lord, 839 F.3d at 564. If the employer can make such a showing, then no but-for causation exists. Id. The employee can always attack the proffered justification as pretext, however, and if material issues of fact regarding pretext exist, summary judgment should be denied. Id.

         Here, it is uncontested that filing a charge with the EEOC is a protected activity and that denial of tenure is an adverse employment action.[2] Thus, the only issue before the Court is whether there is sufficient evidence to present to a jury the question of whether the denial of Dr. Hatcher's tenure was in retaliation for her EEOC charge.

         I. Prelim ...


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