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Gadling-Cole v. West Chester University

United States District Court, Third Circuit

August 29, 2013

CHARNETTA GADLING-COLE, Plaintiff,
v.
WEST CHESTER UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.

Jacqueline M. Vigilante, Esq., THE VIGILANTE LAW FIRM, P.C., Mullica Hill, NJ, Attorney for Plaintiff Charnetta Gadling-Cole.

Linda L. Kelly, Attorney General, Kevin R. Bradford, Senior Deputy Attorney General, Philadelphia, PA, Attorney for Defendants West Chester University, Eli DeHope, Claire Dente, Janet Bradley, Rick Voss and Michele Belliveau.

OPINION

JEROME B. SIMANDLE, Chief District Judge.[1]

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the Court on the motion of Defendants West Chester University, Eli DeHope, Claire Dente, Janet Bradley, Rick Voss and Michele Belliveau (collectively, "the Commonwealth Defendants") for summary judgment. [Docket Item 30.] Plaintiff Charnetta Gadling-Cole filed opposition and the Court heard oral argument.

The instant action arises out of the Plaintiff's employment as a teaching fellow and adjunct professor at West Chester University and Plaintiff's subsequent application for a tenured faculty position with West Chester University's Social Work Department. The Plaintiff claims she was subjected to discriminatory treatment during her employment as an adjunct professor and throughout the hiring process for the assistant professor position in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In particular, the Plaintiff claims that her religious beliefs prevented her from supporting and advocating on behalf of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer ("LGBTQ") community and the Commonwealth Defendants unlawfully discriminated against her based on these religious beliefs.

For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant in part and deny in part the Commonwealth Defendants' motion for summary judgment. Genuine issues of material fact exist which prevent summary judgment as to Plaintiff's claim for religious discrimination in the hiring/promotion process in violation of Title VII. Consequently, the Court will deny summary judgment as to this claim. However, the Court will grant the Commonwealth Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim, constructive discharge claim, retaliation claim and equal protection claim as the Plaintiff has failed to present sufficient evidence to raise a genuine factual dispute regarding essential elements of these causes of action.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Statement of Facts

In late-2007, Plaintiff Charnetta Gadling-Cole ("Plaintiff" or "Gadling-Cole") interviewed for the Frederick Douglass Scholarship Institute ("FDSI") to become a teaching scholar at West Chester University ("WCU") in WCU's Social Work Department. (Def.'s Ex. 1, Deposition of Charnetta Gadling-Cole taken October 11, 2012 ("Gadling-Cole Dep.") at 27:25-28:9.) Plaintiff interviewed with the Social Work Department Chair Dr. Mildred Joyner and faculty from the Social Work Department, including Defendant Dr. Eli DeHope. Defendant Dr. Claire Dente, Defendant Dr. Michele Belliveau, Dr. Larry Williams and Defendant Janet Bradley. (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 28:10-30:14.)

WCU's Social Work Department is very supportive of the LGBTQ community. Defendants DeHope, Dente and Bradley are homosexual. Professor Joyner and Defendants Voss and Belliveau are heterosexual but supportive of the LGBTQ community. (Defs.' Statement of Facts ¶¶ 7and 8.) The Plaintiff, however, believes being homosexual is a choice and this belief is rooted in her religion, Christian Baptist. (Gadling Cole Dep. at 10:4-6; 221:1-7.)

During the FDSI interview process, Plaintiff told the faculty that she was a member of the Southern Baptist church, that her father was a pastor and she was involved with the faith-based community. (Id. at 34:20-36:7.) At no point during the interviews did the conversation turn to Plaintiff's beliefs with respect to homosexuality.

At the end of the interview process, Ms. Gadling-Cole was offered the Frederick Douglass Teaching Scholarship which she accepted. (Id. at 33:9-10.) Consequently, Plaintiff relocated herself and her family from Georgia to Pennsylvania to accept the scholarship. (Id. at 206:2-4.) While working as a teaching scholar at West Chester University, the Plaintiff was also a doctoral student at Howard University. (Id. at 16:17-19.) Plaintiff ultimately completed her doctorate in December 2010. (Id. at 11:7-12.)

The Frederick Douglass Visiting Scholar position was not a permanent position. (Id. at 33:11-34:11.) However, Plaintiff expected the scholarship to lead to long-term employment with West Chester University as a professor in the Social Work Department. (Pl.'s Ex. 7, Decl. of Charnetta Gadling-Cole ("Gadling-Cole Decl.") at ¶¶ 7-9.)

The Plaintiff began teaching in the Spring 2008 semester as a Frederick Douglass Visiting Scholar and reported directly to the Frederick Douglass Visiting Scholar Department as well as Professor Mildred ("Mit") Joyner in the Social Work Department. (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 44:19-22.) At the conclusion of her scholarship term, the Plaintiff was hired as an adjunct professor in the Undergraduate Social Work Department for the 2008-2009 academic year. (Id. at ¶ 8.)

Plaintiff Gadling-Cole attended a social work faculty retreat at the end of her first semester with the department in the spring of 2008. (Id. at ¶ 2.) During this retreat, faculty members Eli DeHope and Claire Dente discussed an undergraduate student who was seeking to be admitted into the department as a candidate for an undergraduate degree in social work. DeHope and Dente discussed this student's comments about "Adam and Eve" versus "Adam and Steve" and how they considered these comments to be insensitive to the LGBTQ community. (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 47:20-49:8.) It appeared to the Plaintiff that the student was being unfairly targeted because of her religious beliefs and that the other faculty members would reject her admission into the social work major because of these religious beliefs. (Gadling-Cole Decl. at ¶¶ 2, 5.) The Plaintiff advocated on behalf of the student because the Plaintiff shared the student's Christian religious beliefs and the Plaintiff explained to the other faculty members that she had been taught the same thing with regard to "Adam and Eve" as a Christian. (Gadling-Cole Decl. at ¶¶ 3-4.) The Plaintiff explained that her Christian religious beliefs conflicted with the LGBTQ lifestyle. (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 47:9-49; 65:3-66:16; Deposition of Michelle Belliveau taken on September 11, 2012 ("Belliveau Dep.") at 205:18-207:19.)

The Plaintiff testified in her deposition that she received a negative reaction from her comments at the faculty meeting and the tone of the meeting drastically changed. (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 70:16-25.) After this retreat, the Plaintiff's relationship with several of the faculty members deteriorated and they no longer communicated or collaborated with the Plaintiff as collegially as they did before. (Id. at 106:1-16.) In particular, Defendant Dente worked with the Plaintiff on the BEST project which brought students and elders in the community together. During this project, Dente attacked the Plaintiff through an email with a student and also attempted to blame the Plaintiff for not having enough elders participate in the project. (Id. at 98:20-103:19; 106:17-107.) Plaintiff's relationship with Defendant Bradley also changed and Plaintiff was treated differently than before the retreat. (Id. at 117:1-10.) Lastly, Defendant Belliveau engaged in limited communication with the Plaintiff, would not work on projects with her and did not encourage her students to attend one of Plaintiff's events. (Id. at 109:10-110:12; 119:18-121:3.)

In September 2008, Plaintiff asked DeHope in an email conversation to be on her dissertation committee because Plaintiff needed a member of her committee with a specialization in gerontology. (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 129:9-130:8.) DeHope responded, "It would be an honor to be on your dissertation committee." (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 129:17-20; Dep. Exh. DeHope-1.) Also, in the Fall 2008 semester, Defendant DeHope was out on leave and the Plaintiff agreed to teach DeHope's Human Behavior Family Systems course. (Deposition of Eli DeHope taken on September 12, 2012 ("DeHope Dep.") at 119:18-121:3.) However, the Plaintiff refused to teach the LGBTQ segment of the Family Systems course because the segment contained attacks on biblical scripture and Plaintiff felt this was inappropriate for the course. (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 56:13-57:15.) Consequently, DeHope taught the LGBTQ segment of the Family Systems course. (DeHope Dep. at 16:1-14.)

In December 2008, Plaintiff informed Defendant Dente, Defendant Belliveau and Professor Joyner that her dissertation proposal was approved and that "[she] was moving on." (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 131:20-132:9.)

Simultaneously, during the Fall 2008 semester, the Social Work Department began to search for a tenure-track assistant professor. Pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") and West Chester University's Faculty Hiring & Search Procedures, the regular full-time faculty in the Social Work Department formed a faculty search committee. (Belliveau Dep. at 20:24-21:9; Def.'s Ex. 16, Decl. of Christopher Fiorentino ("Fiorentino Decl.") at ¶¶ 5-8.) The faculty search committee consisted of Defendant Voss, Defendant DeHope, Defendant Dente, Defendant Bradley and was chaired by Defendant Belliveau (collectively "the Faculty Defendants").

The search process was governed by the CBA and West Chester University's hiring policies. Pursuant to the CBA, a candidate cannot be hired unless he or she is recommended by the majority of the regular full-time department faculty and presented to the department chairperson for review. (Fiorentino Decl. ¶¶ 5-6.) After review by the department chairperson, the name of a candidate recommended by the majority of regular full-time department faculty, irrespective of the recommendation of the department chair person, is submitted to the President, along with the recommendation of the department chair person. (Id. at ¶ 7.) The President then may accept or reject the recommendation of the department faculty, including the recommendation of the department chairperson, and that decision is final. (Id. at ¶ 8.)

West Chester's hiring policy required the search committee to create an advertisement for the assistant professor position and a screening document to be used to evaluate the applications received. (Belliveau Dep. at 34:12-24; Fiorentino Decl., Ex. B at 3.) These materials were reviewed and approved by the University's Social Equity Department. (Belliveau Dep. at 34:12-35:11.) However, the advertisement and screening tool were inconsistent with one another in regards to an applicant's previous teaching experience. The advertisement indicated that previous undergraduate teaching experience was preferred while the screening tool treated undergraduate teaching experience as a mandatory criterion. (Belliveau Dep. Ex. D-4; Pl.'s Ex. 4.)

In order to be considered for the position, the advertisement instructed applicants to submit various materials, including three letters of reference, to Defendant Belliveau by January 31, 2009. (Belliveau Dep. Ex. D-4.) Applicants were also required to have obtained their Ph.D./DSW or achieved all but dissertation (ABD) status with a definite date of completion. (Id.).

Plaintiff submitted an application for the position and the papers initially submitted did not include her letters of reference. (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 147:8-148:10.) On November 19, 2008, Defendant Belliveau informed Plaintiff via e-mail that the committee was beginning their review of applications and that she had received Plaintiff's application, but not her letters of reference. (Id. at 147:8-148:10; Dep. Ex. D-5.) Plaintiff responded by e-mail informing Belliveau that the letters were forthcoming. (Id.)

Shortly thereafter, the search committee received two letters of reference on behalf of the Plaintiff. It is disputed whether the search committee received Plaintiff's third letter of recommendation. The Plaintiff's third recommender, Gail Robinson, e-mailed the Plaintiff a digital copy of her letter and indicated that the original had been or was about to be sent directly to Defendant Belliveau. (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 155:1-157:25, Dep. Ex. D-8.)[2] Defendant Belliveau denies receiving Plaintiff's third letter of recommendation; however, Belliveau did not follow up further with the Plaintiff regarding the status of her recommendations. (Belliveau Dep. at 53:2-13; 127:7-17; 129:12-20.) Nothing in the subsequently discovered email chain confirms that Robinson actually sent the letter of recommendation to Belliveau.[3]

The search committee received numerous applications for the assistant professor position and reviewed each application. The search committee disqualified three candidates because they had an "incomplete application." (Pl.'s Ex. 16.) Two other candidates were excluded because they did not meet the "education requirements" for the position. (Id.) By mid-January, the search committee had decided to invite the top four candidates to campus for an interview. Plaintiff's application was not deemed incomplete and Plaintiff was one of the four candidates selected for an on-campus interview. Specifically, the search committee indicated that Plaintiff was "Qualified and selected for interview/campus visit." (Id.)

Of the four candidates selected for an on-campus interview, two candidates withdrew their applications from consideration. As a result, only the Plaintiff and one other candidate, Lisa Johnson, were under consideration for the assistant professor position. (Belliveau Dep. at 4:17-45:3.) Lisa Johnson was scheduled to interview on February 9 and 10, 2009 while the Plaintiff was scheduled to interview on February 12 and 13, 2009. (Pl.'s Ex. 8, Belliveau Dep. at 174:21-175:3.)

On February 4, 2009, Defendant DeHope, who was a member of the search committee, asked the Plaintiff if they could meet. (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 138:12-21.) Plaintiff was unaware of the purpose of the meeting, but arranged to meet with DeHope on February 9, 2009, the first day of the on-campus interviews. (Id. at 139:4-6.) During this meeting, DeHope criticized the Plaintiff and told her she was not a good fit for the department. (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 140:10-142:16.) The Plaintiff's religion, sexual orientation and Plaintiff's position with respect to the LGBTQ community were not discussed at the meeting. However, the hostility that Plaintiff experienced by members of the Social Work Department was discussed. (Pl.'s Ex. 6.) The Plaintiff was upset by the meeting and went to Professor Joyner to complain. (Gadling Cole Dep. at 142:17-143:25.) Professor Joyner informed the Plaintiff that she would speak to DeHope. (Id. at 143:22-25.)

The search committee then proceeded with the interviews. The interview process for both candidates spanned two days and included a teaching demonstration, a panel interview, individual interviews, a breakfast, a luncheon and a dinner. (Deposition of Rick Voss taken September 13, 2012 ("Voss Dep.") at 47:4-14.) During the first day, the candidates participated in a breakfast with faculty and students, then presented a teaching demonstration, then met with the faculty search committee for a panel interview. (Pl.'s Ex. 8.) The questions asked during the panel interview were taken from a pre-approved list which was compiled by the search committee and submitted to the Social Equity Department for review. (Voss Dep. at 32:9-33:10; Belliveau Dep. at 58:13-59:23.) At the conclusion of the first day, the candidates attended a dinner with one faculty member and the Chair of the Department, Professor Joyner. (Belliveau Dep. at 94:6-7.) The second day included a meeting with Dean Fiorentino, a meeting with Professor Joyner, a meeting with Defendant Bradley and a wrap-up meeting with Defendant Belliveau. (Pl.'s Ex. 8, Belliveau Dep. at 93:13-94:5.)

The Plaintiff was present for a portion of Johnson's breakfast segment but otherwise did not see or participate in Johnson's interview. (Gadling-Cole Dep. at 200:3-201:4.) At the breakfast, Plaintiff observed that more faculty members were in attendance and there was a more positive atmosphere when compared to her own interview experience. (Id. at 200:3-201:14.)

Defendant Bradley attended the dinner with Johnson and Professor Joyner. Defendant Bradley became aware that Johnson was a homosexual when Johnson asked Bradley if her "partner" could attend the dinner. (Deposition of Janet Bradley taken September 12, 2012 ("Bradley Dep.") at 50:16-51:2.) During the interview dinner, Professor Joyner asked Johnson if she was "going to ...


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