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Yan Yan v. Penn State University

August 3, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. John E. Jones III


Presently pending before the Court in this civil rights action is the Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 67) of Defendants Penn State, Zhi-Chun Lai, and LiLun Ho. The Motion has been fully briefed (docs. 70, 79, 86) and is therefore ripe for our review. For the reasons articulated herein, we will grant the Motion in its entirety and enter judgment in favor of the Defendants on all counts of the Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (doc. 33).


The Plaintiff, Yan Yan ("Plaintiff" or "Yan"), commenced the above-captioned civil action with the filing of a Complaint (doc. 1) on January 26, 2010, asserting various causes of action against Defendants Penn State ("Penn State"), Zhi-Chun Lai ("Lai"), and Li-Lun Ho ("Ho"), collectively referred to herein as "Defendants." The parties and the Court are intimately familiar with the protracted procedural posture of this litigation and we thus abbreviate that history, providing only the most pertinent portions thereof herein.

Since this action was initiated, the Plaintiff has twice filed amended complaints (docs. 16, 33). Following the resolution of Defendants' Motions to Dismiss (doc. 17) and our Order granting the same (doc. 21), Plaintiff filed the presently operative Amended Complaint (doc. 33). The four-count Amended Complaint asserts the following causes of action: hostile work environment in violation of Title IX against Defendant Penn State (Count I); retaliation and discrimination in violation of Title IX against Defendant Penn State (Count II); retaliation in violation of the First Amendment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all Defendants (Count III); and discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all Defendants (Count IV).

On May 1, 2012, the collective Defendants filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 67) contemporaneously with a statement of facts (doc. 68), exhibits (doc. 69), and a brief in support of said Motion (doc. 70). Following several extensions of time granted to the Plaintiff, on June 29, 2012, the Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition (doc. 79) and a counter-statement of facts (doc. 80). The Plaintiff did not file any exhibits, documents, or other evidence in opposition to the Defendants' filing. On July 20, 2012, the Defendants filed a reply brief (doc. 86), and the Motion is thus ripe for our review.


Summary judgment is appropriate if the record establishes "that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Initially, the moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The movant meets this burden by pointing to an absence of evidence supporting an essential element as to which the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Id. at 325. Once the moving party meets its burden, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party to show that there is a genuine issue for trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2). An issue is "genuine" only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party, and a factual dispute is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the action under the governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986).

In opposing summary judgment, the non-moving party "may not rely merely on allegations of denials in its own pleadings; rather, its response must . . . set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2). The non-moving party "cannot rely on unsupported allegations, but must go beyond pleadings and provide some evidence that would show that there exists a genuine issue for trial." Jones v. United Parcel Serv., 214 F.3d 402, 407 (3d Cir. 2000). Arguments made in briefs "are not evidence and cannot by themselves create a factual dispute sufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion." Jersey Cent. Power & Light Co. v. Twp. of Lacey, 772 F.2d 1103, 1109-10 (3d Cir. 1985). However, the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non- moving party. P.N. v. Clementon Bd. of Educ.,442 F.3d 848, 852 (3d Cir. 2006).

Summary judgment should not be granted when there is a disagreement about the facts or the proper inferences that a fact finder could draw therefrom. Peterson v. Lehigh Valley Dist. Council, 676 F.2d 81, 84 (3d Cir. 1982). Still, "the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; there must be a genuine issue of material fact to preclude summary judgment." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48.


The following facts are derived from the record and viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff in accordance with the standard of review applicable to a motion for summary judgment. Due to the complexity of this litigation and the familiarity of the parties and the Court with the record, we briefly state the pertinent facts herein and supplement them as necessary with additional facts throughout our analysis.

Plaintiff is an adult female of Chinese descent who has resided in the United States for the past eleven (11) years and at all relevant times pursuant to student visas. (Doc. 68, ¶ 1). Defendant Penn State is a state-related university providing both undergraduate and graduate programs. (Id. ¶ 2). Defendant Lai is a member of the Penn State faculty and the chair of Penn State's Cell and Development Biology ("CDB") program. (Id. ¶ 26). Defendant Ho was a senior lab member in Defendant Lai's lab during the relevant time period. (Doc. 80, ¶ 4).

Plaintiff was accepted into Penn State's Graduate Degree Program in Genetics in 2002; she deferred admission for one year because she was pregnant. (Doc. 68, ¶¶ 14-15). Plaintiff sat for and failed her first comprehensive exam in the Genetics program in August of 2005. (Id. ¶ 18).*fn1 Plaintiff passed the Genetics comprehensive exam on her second attempt in November of 2005. (Id. ¶ 19). In February of 2007, Plaintiff was terminated from the Genetics program; her termination letter advised that she demonstrated a lack of understanding of her experiments, an inability to interpret data, and an inability to make meaningful connections between data and her specific scientific purpose. (Id. ¶ 21).

Plaintiff then approached Dr. Hong Ma, then Chair of the CDB program, regarding applying to the program. (Id. ¶ 24). Plaintiff contacted several faculty members seeking permission to work in their labs; Defendant Lai agreed in May of 2007. (Id. ¶¶ 25-27). On June 18, 2007, Defendant Lai, Plaintiff, and Dr. Ma signed a written memorandum of understanding formally admitting Plaintiff to the CDB program. (Id. ¶¶ 28-29). Plaintiff was also granted a Teaching Assistantship ("TA") for the fall of 2007, a position which was renewed in the spring of 2008. (Id. ¶ 30).

In August of 2007, after learning of personal conflicts between Plaintiff and others in the lab, Defendant Lai suggested to Dr. Ma that Plaintiff might be better suited for another lab. (Id. ¶ 35). In November of 2007, Defendant Lai again raised concerns regarding Plaintiff's behavior. (Id. ¶ 37). Around this time, Plaintiff advised Defendant Lai that she believed others were interfering with her experiments, but did not name anyone in particular. (Id. ¶ 38).*fn2

Defendant Ho was the senior-most member of Defendant Lai's lab at all times relevant to the case sub judice. (Doc. 80, ¶¶ 40-42). Defendant Ho had no responsibility for evaluating or grading Plaintiff and was not responsible for hiring or firing within the lab. (Doc. 68, ¶¶ 40-42). Ho, as a favor to Defendant Lai and because Defendant Lai did not have a lab technician, would order general supplies for the lab. (Id. ¶ 106). All students were permitted to order their own experiment-specific supplies and reagents as necessary. (Id. ¶ 107).

On the evening of January 26, 2008, Plaintiff and Defendant Ho were both working in Defendant Lai's lab. (Id. ¶ 43). Plaintiff sought Defendant Ho's aid in moving a heavy carbon dioxide cylinder for part of her experiment. (Id. ¶ 44). Defendant Ho knew that proper safety protocol required using a cart to move the heavy cylinder and thus refused to help Plaintiff move the cylinder without a cart. (Id. ¶¶ 45-47).*fn3 Plaintiff dropped the cylinder, breaking two fingers on her right hand and losing consciousness for approximately ten minutes. (Id. ¶¶ 48-49). Defendant Ho attempted to assist Plaintiff with her injury until Plaintiff's husband arrived. (Id. ¶ 50). Plaintiff contends that Defendant Ho left Plaintiff lay unconscious on the floor without attempting to render aid until she regained consciousness, but she cites to no record evidence to support this contention.

Plaintiff filed a workers compensation claim and provided Defendant Lai with a physician's note placing her on modified work duty for two weeks. (Id.).*fn4 In late February of 2008, Plaintiff went to Penn State Police Services and filed a complaint. (Id. ¶ 54). Police Services referred the matter to judicial affairs on February 26, 2008. (Id. ¶¶ 55, 56). Karen Feldbaum of Judicial Affairs met with Plaintiff and her husband and spoke with Defendant Ho. (Id. ¶ 57). Neither the police officer investigating the complaint nor Ms. Feldbaum viewed Plaintiff's complaints or allegations as claiming gender-based discrimination or harassment and both concluded that the issue was one of interpersonal conflict. (Id. ¶ 63).

Plaintiff requested that Ms. Feldbaum issue an administrative directive to Defendant Ho, and Ms. Feldbaum determined that under the circumstances it was proper to issue a directive to both Plaintiff and Defendant Ho. (Id. ¶ 58). These directives are not disciplinary; they simply advise students not to have contact with one another. (Id. ¶ 59). Plaintiff admits that the alleged "verbal attacks" from Defendant Ho ceased subsequent to the issuance of the administrative directives, however she contends that her samples and experiments continued to be disturbed. (Id. ¶ 62; Doc. 80, ¶ 62). Plaintiff also contends that subsequent to her report, Defendant Lai explicitly prohibited Plaintiff's use of confocal microscopes necessary for her experiments, but cites no record evidence to support this claim.

Defendant Lai began discussing Plaintiff's comprehensive exam with her early in the spring of 2008. (Doc. 68, ¶ 65). Plaintiff and Defendant Lai began contacting members of the faculty and asked them to serve on her comprehensive exam committee. (Id. ¶ 66). While the operative memorandum of understanding stated that the "comprehensive exam should take place during the summer of 2008," (doc. 69-6), Defendant Lai scheduled Plaintiff's examination for May 1, 2008, in order to accommodate the schedules of the committee members and to avoid any disruption from summer schedules. (Doc. 68, ...

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