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Barrett v. Illinois Community College Dist No. 515

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

August 5, 2019

Dr. Reuben Barrett, Plaintiff,
Illinois Community College Dist. No. 515, Board of Trustees of Illinois Community College District No. 515, Susan Solberg, Christa Adam, Marian Kelly, Marie Hansel, and Debra Prendergast, Defendants.



         Dr. Reuben Barrett, a biology professor at Prairie State College, brings Title VII, 42 U.S.C § 1981, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against the college, its Board of Trustees, and five employees, alleging race and gender discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment. Defendants move for summary judgment on Dr. Barrett's claims. For the reasons discussed below, the motion is granted.

         I. Legal Standards

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute as to any material fact exists 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). I construe all disputed facts in favor of the nonmoving party. Simpkins v. DuPage Housing Auth., 893 F.3d 962, 965 (7th Cir. 2018).

         II. Background

         Defendant Prairie State College is governed by defendant Board of Trustees for Prairie State. [104] ¶ 5.[1] Defendant Marie Hansel[2] was the Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty at Prairie State, beginning in July 2013. Id. ¶ 8. Defendant Susan Solberg was Dean of Academic Affairs from 1998 through May 2010. Id. ¶¶ 6, 17. When Solberg became Dean of Liberal Arts in 2010, defendant Debra Prendergast took over as Dean of Academic Affairs. Id. ¶¶ 9, 17.[3] Defendant Christa Adam was a biology professor beginning in 2005 and was coordinator of the biology program from 2010 through 2014. Id. ¶ 7. Defendant Marian Kelly was a biology professor at Prairie State. Id. ¶ 10. Hansel, Solberg, Prendergast, Adam, and Kelly were white women. Id. ¶¶ 6-10; [113] ¶ 18. Plaintiff Dr. Reuben Barrett was a biology professor and had over 24 years of experience, making him the most senior member of the biology program. [104] ¶ 14. During his time at Prairie State, Dr. Barrett was never placed on probation or demoted, and his pay and benefits never decreased. Id. In a performance review in 2000, Solberg indicated that Dr. Barrett's performance in collegiality and contributions to the college was unacceptable. Id. ¶ 15. But because he received an unacceptable rating in just one category, Dr. Barrett was not subjected to a full post-tenure evaluation. Id.[4]

         A. The Chair and Coordinator Positions

         The biology program at Prairie State fell within the natural sciences department. Id. ¶ 16. There were around 30-40 full-time faculty in the natural sciences department and four biology labs. Id. The Dean of Academic Affairs (first Solberg and then Prendergast) supervised the biology program and reported to the vice president. Id. ¶ 17. Each academic program, including biology, had a coordinator. Id. ¶ 18. Coordinator positions were in part administrative and included duties like interviewing adjunct faculty and helping process lab supply orders. Id. There were no requirements or qualifications to be a coordinator. [104] ¶ 18. In exchange for taking on additional administrative duties, the coordinator received release time, meaning she could teach fewer credit hours without taking a pay cut. Id.[5] The amount of release time allotted depended on the time commitment of the coordinator position. Id. For example, if a coordinator's responsibilities took the same time as one three-hour course, she would teach one fewer three-hour course each semester she served as coordinator. Id. The dean appointed the coordinator, and the vice president approved that decision. Id. ¶ 19. The parties dispute how the coordinator selection process worked. Defendants assert that because coordinator was not a sought-after position, the professors in a program typically discussed who would volunteer internally and then passed that on to the dean. See id. Dr. Barrett asserts that the decision was up to “the unfettered discretion of the dean. [A professor had] no role in it whatsoever.” See [86-12] at 228:17-22. Coordinators did not have any formal authority over other faculty members, though in practice, deans instructed faculty to bring things to the coordinator's attention before going to the dean. [104] ¶ 20; [113] ¶ 3; [86-7] at 398:9-12. Coordinators also signed off on lab purchase requests, see [104] ¶¶ 20, 23; [103-3], and lab managers reported to the coordinator as well as the dean. [113] ¶ 6.

         Both Dr. Nicholas Halm-Lutterhodt, an African-American professor in the biology program, and Craig Nelson, another male biology professor, served as coordinators. [104] ¶ 40.[6] Though Dr. Barrett acknowledged there were no qualifications to be coordinator, he believed he was more qualified than other faculty because he was the most senior, understood college governance, and had written a course. Id. ¶ 41. The parties dispute the extent to which Dr. Barrett expressed interest in the coordinator position. See id. ¶ 42. Defendants assert that Dr. Barrett had not told anyone he wanted the position since the 1990's, that he never told Solberg, Prendergast, or Hansel, and that he told Dr. Halm-Lutterhodt that if asked to be coordinator, he would turn it down. [86-8] at 17:23-19:11. Dr. Barrett does not dispute that he never told Solberg, Prendergast, or Hansel he wanted to be coordinator, but asserts that up until he filed his first EEOC complaint he consistently complained to Adam, Thurman, Halm-Lutterhodt, Kouba, and Ladaris that he had not been appointed. [86-12] at 236:7-20. Dr. Barrett also claims that Halm-Lutterhodt and Kelly told him that the administration (including Solberg, Prendergast, and Hansel) did not want him to be coordinator. Id. at 238:15-239:7.

         While each program (such as biology) had a coordinator, each department (e.g. natural sciences) had a chair. [113] ¶ 3; [86-12] at 262:6-11.[7] Unlike coordinators, department chairs were selected by their peers, though a faculty member could nominate himself for consideration. [104] ¶ 21. Chairs were thought of as a “think tank for the deans to get faculty input into a variety of things, ” and if an individual in a department had a problem, he was supposed to raise it with the chair before going to the dean. Id.; [113] ¶¶ 3-4. Chairs met with the dean and the vice president for monthly discussions. [104] ¶ 21. One of the perks of being chair was getting to know the vice president and gaining credibility with her. [113] ¶ 5. Like coordinators, department chairs received release time in exchange for the additional work that came with the chair position. [104] ¶ 21.

         B. Lab Supplies and Reimbursements

         Many biology courses at Prairie State had lab components. Id. ¶ 22. To get lab materials and to have the lab set up for class, professors used a request process that changed over the years. Id. Most recently, professors used Microsoft Outlook to send meeting requests to the lab manager with the date of the lab, the materials needed, and instructions. Id. Knowing the exact lab date was especially important when a professor requested live specimens. Id. The biology program ran about 160 labs per week. Id. The dean received the supply request list for the entire department and the list did not indicate which professor made which requests. Id. ¶ 23. If the price of the requested materials exceeded a certain threshold, the university required a bidding process, which could create approval problems. Id. Technology requests were handled differently because they were funded through a different budget. Id.

         Dr. Barrett often did not receive requested lab supplies and equipment for his classes. Id. ¶¶ 24, 35. For example, he received elodea (a plant) only one or two times in recent years, and when he did not get live specimens it interfered with his teaching. Id. ¶ 24; [113] ¶ 9. Some of Dr. Barrett's specimens and models were not replaced, and on certain occasions, someone threw out student experiments and other materials left in the lab. [104] ¶¶ 24, 35. When Dr. Barrett's supplies were unavailable, he improvised by giving students worksheets or making up different lessons. Id. ¶ 25. Other biology professors took similar approaches when they did not receive materials or when the lab was not set up properly. Id. Though other professors occasionally dealt with these problems, Dr. Barrett consistently complained about not receiving supplies. [113] ¶ 10. Based on his observations and statements from lab managers, Dr. Barrett believed that white, female professors got the supplies they requested. [104] ¶ 39. Despite these mishaps, Dr. Barrett received positive evaluations from his deans and positive feedback from students. Id. ¶ 25.

         Ladaris Martin set up Dr. Barrett's biology labs, and Dr. Barrett told her that he did the same labs every semester and to keep things in stock. [113] ¶¶ 7-8. One day, Dr. Barrett spoke with Martin in the cafeteria about his elodea not being alive. Id. ¶ 25. Martin responded that they were doing their best to ensure it was, to which Dr. Barrett told her not to worry because if it was not, he would file again (which Martin took to mean that he would file another EEOC complaint).[8] Id.; [86-15] at 111:17-112:1. Martin complained about this interaction to Prendergast in an email stating, “I think Dr. Barrett feels that he will get his way if he creates a hostile work environment and continues to threaten or attack those around him that do not conform to his way. I do not agree with this approach and I also feel that we should not have to tiptoe and/or walk on eggshells in order to create a peaceful or happy environment.” Id. Martin told Prendergast she had ordered the elodea for Dr. Barrett, and Prendergast apologized and reassured Martin. [113] ¶ 25; [86-15] at 112:7-15. After learning about this incident, David Cronan (the executive director of H.R.), the deans, and the vice president determined that this was an internal issue between two employees, not a matter of discrimination. [113] ¶ 35. Had Cronan thought an investigation was necessary, he would have done more. Id.; [86-5] at 57:2-8. But Cronan did not think administrative procedures required a meeting, and he did not file any sort of report. [113] ¶¶ 35-36; [86-5] at 55:6-15, 57:9-12. Cronan told Martin he would speak with Dr. Barrett to make sure he did not approach her in that manner in the future. [113] ¶ 26.[9]

         When Dr. Barrett complained about not receiving his lab supplies, Solberg asked staff to evaluate the lab manager John Schmidt's performance. [104] ¶ 26. Prairie State addressed different issues with its lab managers (including Schmidt and Martin) over time, including problems related to live specimens, setting up labs, and appearing for work. Id. ¶¶ 26, 27. Dr. Barrett was never denied lab supplies because of budgetary problems. [113] ¶¶ 21-23.[10] Prairie State was aware that Dr. Barrett believed the problems with him getting supplies were ongoing. Id. ¶ 37. Cronan thought the problems had been addressed, noting that Dr. Barrett still had complaints, but that Prairie State had “taken efforts to make every change that [it] could possibly make” to satisfy his concerns. Id. ¶ 39. Cronan agreed that it is not enough for the school to limit or restrict discriminatory conduct, it must stop the problem altogether. Id. ¶ 40.

         In 2014, a cabinet where Dr. Barrett and other professors stored some of their lab materials was locked, and Dr. Barrett did not have access to a key. [104] ¶ 29. Once notified of the situation, Prendergast contacted the appropriate department and provided Dr. Barrett with a key within a few weeks (the parties dispute precisely how long it took). Id. Prairie State claimed that it was always reluctant to give out additional keys. Id. Dr. Barrett asserts that Adam and Prendergast had keys and he did not. Id. Dr. Barrett filed his first EEOC complaint about this incident. Id. Prairie State determined there was insufficient evidence to conclude that discriminatory animus was involved. [113] ¶ 36.

         Prairie State refused to reimburse Dr. Barrett for professional development expenses. [104] ¶ 37. Prairie State reimbursed Dr. Halm-Lutterodt for a trip to Canada and sent other black male faculty to a training in Florida, though it did not send Dr. Barrett to that training. Id.[11] After Solberg denied Dr. Barrett's request for reimbursement for supplies he purchased, he stopped submitting reimbursement requests. [104] ¶ 28. During his time at Prairie State, Dr. Barrett bought over $100, 000 in materials for his courses. Id.[12] In 2002, Dr. Barrett submitted a travel request form. Id. ¶ 51. Linda Uzureau (the Vice President of Academic Affairs at the time, see id. ¶ 11) attached a Post-it note to the form, stating “Susan-Please tell Reuben that we would like to get these at least a week before the event!”. Id. ¶ 57.

         C. Conflicts with Other Employees

         Dr. Barrett and another professor developed the curriculum, outline, materials, and lab schedule for Biology 100, all of which corresponded with a certain textbook. [104] ¶ 30. Prairie State submitted courses to the Illinois Articulation Initiative for approval so that students could transfer the credits they earned at Prairie State to other schools. [113] ¶ 24; [86-9] at 39:14-40:18. Some biology professors wanted to standardize the labs to obviate the need for lab requests and make things easier on the lab managers. [104] ¶ 31. When Dr. Barrett objected, the department decided not to go through with the standardization. Id. ¶ 33. Biology faculty also considered using different books for Biology 100; it was typical for professors to evaluate course textbooks regularly to make sure they were using the best book available for their courses. Id. ¶ 32. When the biology program switched to a different textbook, Dr. Barrett's students complained that the chapters listed with his online notes no longer corresponded to the chapters in the textbook. Id. ¶ 33. The parties dispute whether Dr. Barrett could have kept using his preferred course materials. Dr. Barrett says his book was pulled from the bookstore, and so was no longer available to his students. See [86-12] at 19:13-16.

         In addition, Dr. Barrett had to defend his work to his colleagues, meaning he had to explain what he was doing in his courses and why he needed certain supplies. [104] ¶ 36.[13] People at Prairie State did not address Dr. Barrett with the title “doctor.” Id. ¶ 38. They did, however, address Dr. Halm-Lutterodt with the title, calling him Dr. Nick. Id. According to Cronan, professors and other employees at Prairie State often referred to professors by their first names, regardless of whether the professor was also an accredited physician.[14] [113] ¶ 41;[15] [86-20] at 411:4-19. In November 2014, while Solberg was dean, she emailed Dr. Barrett asking him to allow one of his students to take her exam early. [104] ¶ 52. Dr. Barrett felt the email was hostile because it was outside the scope of Solberg's job. Id.

         In 2016, another professor, Lee Anne Burrough, called Dr. Barrett a troublemaker on two separate occasions. [104] ¶ 49; [113] ¶ 42. Dr. Barrett reported this to Human Resources, which opened an investigation. [104] ¶¶ 12, 49. When investigating a complaint, Cronan usually spoke with complaining witnesses first, but he spoke with Burrough before Dr. Barrett because of scheduling issues, and he did not think this impacted his investigation. [113] ¶ 44. Cronan issued a report, crediting Burrough's account of the events and concluding there was no evidence of gender-motivated harassment. [104] ¶ 49. Cronan noted in his report that Burrough had vehemently denied calling Dr. Barrett a troublemaker and looking at him with a menacing look. [113] ¶ 45. Cronan was struck by the manner in which Burrough responded to his inquiry. Id. During the investigation, Cronan viewed a security videotape of the incident, but the camera was positioned far away from where the incident had taken place. Id. Though the footage showed both Burrough and Dr. Barrett near Dr. Barrett's classroom at the relevant time, Cronan was unable to tell whose precise version of the events was accurate. Id. Cronan acknowledged that the video corroborated some of the facts Dr. Barrett asserted, but he concluded it was more likely that the incident was a light-hearted greeting of a colleague than intentional harassment and that the incident did not violate Prairie State's policy that employees treat coworkers and students with respect, courtesy, and professionalism. [113] ¶¶ 43-44, 47. Cronan also believed Burrough when she said she had not heard of Dr. Barrett's lawsuits or EEOC charges, and he did not inquire further. Id. ¶ 46. Cronan admitted his conclusions were based on speculation. Id. ¶ 47. He offered Dr. Barrett a meeting with college officials and participation in employee assistance program and counseled him to avoid any retaliation against Burrough. [104] ¶ 49.[16]

         Whenever a Prairie State employee filed a written complaint alleging harassment, Lynita Gephardt, the Executive Director of H.R. at Prairie State before Cronan took over in 2012, expected to be aware of it so she could investigate. [113] ¶¶ 27-29, 31. When investigating a complaint, Gephardt asked for the complete story and interviewed the accused as well as any witnesses. Id. ¶ 31. According to Gephardt, it would not be an appropriate response, in a he-said she-said situation, to recommend counseling to the accused and instruct the complainant not to take any other conduct or make any further accusations. Id. ¶ 33.[17] Gebhardt never recommended counseling for an accusing party. Id. ΒΆ 32. If Dr. Barrett ...

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