United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
LISA PUPO LENIHAN, Magistrate Judge.
For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 32) will be granted. The Court observes that the evidence of record is sufficient to reasonably support findings that Plaintiff, Shimberlee Jiron-King (hereafter "Jiron-King" or "Plaintiff"), who was employed for three (3) years as a probationary tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of English at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (hereafter "IUP" or "Defendant"), experienced throughout her period of employment varying degrees of challenge as to her (1) teaching pedagogy in the particular University context; (2) requisite participation in service to the University through, e.g., active committee roles; and (3) inclination/ability to respond to concrete recommendations and directions/requirements from IUP regarding progress toward fulfillment of each contractual component of her assistant professorship. See Defendant's Brief in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defendant's Brief in Support") (ECF No. 33) at 6 ("Throughout her employment at IUP problems were repeatedly observed and reported concerning [Plaintiff]'s teaching effectiveness, her service to the University, and her willingness to work to improve her teaching.").
The evidence is, conversely, insufficient to support a reasonable finding in her favor on any of Plaintiff's sole remaining claims, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"). More specifically, no jury could reasonably find, on the evidence thoroughly reviewed by this Court, that Plaintiff was on account of her race or gender subjected to either intentional discrimination/disparate treatment or a hostile work environment (including, i.e., sexual harassment). Plaintiff's Title VII claims fail because they either (a) lack evidentiary support and/or seek to raise fact questions not material to the cause of action, and/or (b) do not survive the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting analysis. Plaintiff's diverse complaints are simply not reasonably linked to her race or gender (or any other protected category). Her accusations of "prejudice" or bias lack reasonably sufficient evidence and cannot ground a finding that, despite Defendant's substantial evidence of legitimate bases for IUP's ultimate termination of her employment, those bases were "pretextual".
II. Relevant Factual and Procedural History
A. Factual History
The factual history as to which there is evidence of record is as follows:
Plaintiff is a Mexican American ("Latino") woman hired in Spring 2007 to a probationary full-time tenure track position as an Assistant Professor of English at IUP. See Defendant's Brief in Support, Ex. D-22 (Plaintiff's Deposition) at 30-31, 39 (Plaintiff was hired by IUP after sending out more than 50 applications and receiving no other job offers; she left a one-year probationary professorship at Claflin University). Plaintiff was interviewed and extended an offer of employment by a Hiring Committee that included the English Department Chair, Dr. Gail Berlin. Id. at 32. Plaintiff was hired to teach "a range of [IUP's] undergraduate English" courses as well as "Latino/a Literature... in the undergraduate major and the Graduate Program in Literature and Criticism (M.A. and Ph.D.)". Defendant's Brief in Support, Ex. D-3 (Position Announcement for English Faculty Position). That is, the record indicates that Plaintiff's familiarity with/ability to teach Latino literature was regarded as an asset in her hiring in that IUP hoped to broaden its English Department course offerings. See, e.g., Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant's Concise Statement of Material Facts ("Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant's CSMF") (ECF No. 39) at para. 78 ("When Plaintiff was hired, ... to even be considered for the position she had to express... an interest [in teaching Latino/a literature]."); Ex. D-11 (Plaintiff's second year Faculty Evaluation Report noting that she "was hired as a Latino/Latina scholar to join the Literature and Criticism graduate program as well as to teach undergraduate Liberal Studies and minority literature classes"); Ex. D-22, Plaintiff's Deposition at 34-35 ("They felt that the Latino population was growing there, and also that it was a very important part of American literature.").
Plaintiff's employment documents specifically set forth expectations for teaching, scholarship and University service/activities. See Ex. D-4 (June 18, 2007 employment contract offer specifying that Plaintiff's "primary responsibility is the development of a program of effective teaching, advising, and related professional activities", that she was "expected to engage in meaningful scholarship" and "to share [her] professional and intellectual talents in service activities to the university and, where appropriate, the community at large"); Ex. D-5 (Faculty Appointment Notice, noting that it was "understood that [Plaintiff would] participate in extracurricular activities of the University in the manner in which [her] qualifications warrant and to the degree that may be reasonably expected by the governing authorities."); Ex. D-6 (Collective Bargaining Agreement governing Plaintiff's employment) at 23 (identifying performance evaluation criteria as "1. Effective teaching and fulfillment of professional responsibilities", "2. Continuing Scholarly Growth", and "3. Service: Contribution to the University and/or community").
Her employment was covered by a collective bargaining agreement (a "CBA" or "Agreement") between The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and The Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties. Pursuant to that Agreement, Plaintiff's appointment was for one-year terms subject to renewal by decision of the University's President (the "President" or "President Intenmann"), informed by observations, evaluations and written recommendations from (1) the Department's Evaluation Committee (the "DEC"), (2) the Department's Chair (the "Department Chair", "Chair Berlin", or "Interim Chair Pagnucci"), and (3) the Academic Dean of the College of Humanities (the "Dean" or "Dean Asamoah"). The DEC provided a written recommendation based on the classroom observations of members of the Department ("faculty peer observations"); the Department Chair made an independent classroom observation and also provided a written recommendation; and the Dean also issued a written performance review and recommendation. See Defendant's Brief in Support at 3; Ex. D-6.
Plaintiff began teaching classes during the Summer term (June, 2007), including a graduate course in "Topics in Minority Literatures: Contemporary Latina/o Literature in the U.S." See Ex. D-7 (Faculty Evaluation of Dr. Neinkamp). A tenured professor and Department colleague, Dr. Susan Comfort ("Comfort"), offered to mentor her and suggested that Plaintiff put an "IUP Safe Zone" (or "LBGT") sticker (referring to sexual orientation support/nondiscrimination) on her office window (as several other IUP faculty, including Comfort, had done); Plaintiff declined. The Department Chair, Dr. Gail Berlin, and the Graduate Study Chair, Dr. Karen Dandurand, also recommended that Summer that Plaintiff have a mentor (to help her "learn the ropes", because a graduate student had made a complaint about Plaintiff). They noted that Comfort had volunteered, and (in response to Plaintiff's question of whether mentorship was required) informed Plaintiff that mentorship was recommended but voluntary. See Ex. D-22 (Plaintiff's Deposition) at 56-58; Complaint at 4 ("Plaintiff never agreed to the mentorship and never put the sticker on her window.").
In her first academic year, Plaintiff moved with her husband and children from a residence near the IUP campus to the area of Cranberry, Pennsylvania, a distance of approximately one to one-and-one-half hours' drive. Ex. D-22 (Plaintiff's Deposition) at 47; cf. id. at 37-45 (Plaintiff's family initially rented an apartment in Indiana but moved to Cranberry Township; the relocation was related to unsanitary housing and better homeschooling opportunities, and unrelated to an incident between Plaintiff and her husband and the Indiana Township Police in late June regarding the former's public intoxication and, as to Plaintiff's husband, driving under the influence). Cf. infra n. 22.
Comfort expressed an open invitation to Plaintiff to stay overnight at her residence given that long-distance commute to/from Cranberry. Cf. Complaint at 5 (Comfort told Plaintiff she was welcome to spend the night at her home with Comfort and her female romantic partner); Plaintiff's Response at 9 (Comfort "offer[ed] twice to allow Plaintiff to spend the night in her home"). Plaintiff declined because Powers was in a domestic relationship with another woman. See Complaint at 5 ("Plaintiff found this invitation to be highly offensive.").
In accordance with the terms of her employment contract, Plaintiff was annually evaluated for renewal based on her teaching, scholarship, and service to University. See supra, Ex. D-6 (CBA). Her first annual performance review record indicates that she was observed by several Department colleagues who were generally positive and supportive in their reports. Plaintiff acknowledges that she received a positive formal peer recommendation from Comfort during her first year. See Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant's CSMF at para. 34; Ex. D-22 (Plaintiff's Deposition) at 62; id. at 144 (Dr. Comfort was Plaintiff's "first-year evaluator" for the DEC and "recommend[ed] that [Plaintiff] be retained"); s ee also Defendant's Brief in Support at 6, 13 (citing Plaintiff's Deposition testimony).
Plaintiff was also observed by Chair Berlin who documented concerns regarding Plaintiff's clarity and organization as to syllabus and class content, Plaintiff's method of grading, students' non-engagement during class, and some unusually low scores in student evaluations. Dr. Berlin provided specific suggestions and directions in her report and meeting with Plaintiff. See Ex. D-8 (Chair's Observation and Evaluation, including observation notes and request that Plaintiff work with Dr. Sue Welsh, Director of Liberal Studies English, to develop a written teaching improvement plan, which might include working with the Center for Teaching Excellence, becoming active in a reflective practice group, and being observed informally by colleagues for feedback or observing some of IUP's best teachers in action). Plaintiff's first year student reviews identified similar areas of concern. Although Plaintiff received unanimous recommendations from the DEC; the Department Chair, Dr. Gail Berlin; and the Dean for first year renewal of her employment contract, she was expressly advised that she needed to address the identified concerns. See Ex. D-9 (Dean Asamoah's recommendation, noting teaching weaknesses identified by "weak ...