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Lipschultz v. Holy Family University

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

February 17, 2017



          R. BARCLAY SURRICK, J.

         Presently before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 20.) For the following reasons, the Motion will be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         After she was terminated as an adjunct Spanish professor, Plaintiff Harriet Lipschultz brought this retaliation claim against Defendant Holy Family University under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). Upon review of the summary judgment record, and resolving all disputes in favor of Plaintiff, we conclude that Plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence of retaliation to survive summary judgment.

         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff is sixty-eight years old. (Compl. ¶ 1, Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1.) She formerly served as an adjunct Spanish Professor at Holy Family for approximately ten years, from 2002 until 2012. (Lipschultz Dep. 35, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. E, ECF No. 22.) During her ten years at Holy Family, Plaintiff taught multiple classes every semester, including the Summer semester. (Id.) Like all adjunct faculty at Holy Family, Plaintiff was hired on a semester-to-semester basis. (Lipschultz Dep. 35.) Plaintiff received numerous positive evaluations from students during her time at Holy Family. (Student Evals., Pl.'s Resp. Ex. B.) In December 2006, the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of Plaintiff. (Id.) The letter stated that Plaintiff “is a dedicated educator” who “handles her classes with ease and good humor.” (Id.) The letter further states that Plaintiff's “student evaluations attest to her teaching excellence and her ability to facilitate academic growth in students.” (Id.)

         Despite a history of success at Holy Family, Plaintiff was informed on March 13, 2012, that her services as an adjunct Spanish professor would no longer be needed. (Mar. 12, 2012 Email, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. C.) Michael Markowitz, the Dean of the School of Arts of Sciences at Holy Family at that time, stated in an e-mail to Plaintiff that, because the University “expanded [its] roster of part-time faculty, [it is] rotating teaching opportunities among all those involved to ensure the highest quality and greatest diversity of instruction.” (Id.)[1]

         In October of 2013, after Holy Family decided to not renew Plaintiff's adjunct professor contract, Plaintiff filed an age discrimination lawsuit against her former employer in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. (Settlement Agmt., Pl.'s Resp. Ex. D.) The parties settled the lawsuit in June 2014. (Id.) As part of the Settlement Agreement, Holy Family agreed to pay Plaintiff a small monetary sum, and also agreed to permit Plaintiff to teach two introductory Spanish courses during the Fall 2014 semester. (Id.) Specifically, the Settlement Agreement stated:

The University shall appoint and assign [Plaintiff] to teach two Introductory Spanish courses during the Fall 2014 semester, beginning on August 27, 2014 and ending on December 17, 2014. Such appointment shall be set forth in the University's standard appointment letter . . . . This appointment and assignment of classes to [Plaintiff] shall not be construed to constitute an offer, promise, or guarantee of further or continuing assignments other than those offered.

(Id.) After the parties entered into the Settlement Agreement, Markowitz-who at that time was the Vice President of Academic Affairs-called Rochelle Robbins, the Dean of Arts and Sciences, and instructed her to make two introductory Spanish classes available to Plaintiff during the Fall semester. (Robbins Dep. 95, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. G.)[2] During this conversation, Markowitz informed Dean Robbins about Plaintiff's discrimination lawsuit, including the Settlement Agreement, which required Holy Family to provide two classes to Plaintiff during the Fall semester. (Robbins Dep. 66-67.) Markowitz also informed Dean Robbins that the Settlement Agreement was meant to provide Plaintiff two classes, but that “anything beyond the two sections would be entirely up to [Dean Robbins].” (Id. at 67.)

         On June 4, 2014, Holy Family sent Plaintiff a letter confirming her appointment as a “part-time lecturer in the School of Arts and Sciences at Holy Family University for the Fall 2014, semester, beginning August 27, 2014 and ending December 17, 2014.” (June 4 Ltr., Pl.'s Resp. Ex. H.) The June 2014 appointment letter is nearly identical to appointment letters Plaintiff received from Holy Family during prior years serving as an adjunct professor. (See Pl.'s Resp. Ex. I.)

         Prior to the start of the Fall semester, on July 24, 2014, Plaintiff met with Dean Robbins and Assistant Dean Stokes-Dupass to discuss the use of Holy Family's learning management system and to obtain a copy of the textbook. (Robbins Dep. 15, 17; Lipschultz Dep. 14-15; July 24, 2014 E-mail, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. L.) After the meeting, Dean Robbins sent Plaintiff an introductory Spanish course syllabus that was prepared by Dr. Leticia Díaz, and suggested that Plaintiff model her syllabus off of the Díaz syllabus. (July 24 E-mail; Robbins Dep. 77.)

         Plaintiff took Dean Robbins's advice and drafted a syllabus that was nearly identical to the Díaz syllabus. (Lipschultz Syllabus, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. M; Díaz Syllabus, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. L.) There were two differences between Plaintiff's syllabus and Díaz's syllabus: Plaintiff did not use Díaz's assessment grid, and Plaintiff did not include a date for the students' oral presentation. (Lipschultz Syllabus; Díaz Syllabus.)

         Adjunct professors must have a syllabus. (Robbins Dep. 27-28.) According to the Adjunct Handbook:

Each faculty member must submit two copies of a course syllabus to the School Dean prior to the first class meeting. Although the form and content of the outline may vary with the subject matter, a common syllabus below displays requirements and offers suggestions to facilitate the preparation of your course outline.

         (Handbook 9, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. N.) The Adjunct Handbook also provides that “course syllabi must include the Academic Honesty Policy and Disability Accommodations sections.” (Id.) Dean Robbins testified during her deposition that other mandatory components of a syllabus include: a list of learning objectives; the course description; the name, section number, and semester of the course; contact information; information about the textbook; a description of the work required of the student; the grading policy; and a grid for assessment, which informs the students how they will be assessed based on the learning objectives. (Robbins Dep. 28-29.)

         Holy Family asks that adjunct faculty upload their syllabus to its online education management system. (Robbins Dep. 33.) Once the syllabi are uploaded, they are randomly reviewed to assure that the mandatory components are present. (Id. at 33-34.) If it is discovered that a syllabus is lacking a mandatory component, the syllabus is returned to the adjunct faculty member to be revised. (Id. at 34.) Plaintiff's Fall 2014 syllabus was not one that was marked as “flagged” or “problematic” after a random search of the syllabi. (Id. at 80-81.)

         When Dean Robbins began as Dean in 2013, she instituted an evaluation policy for adjunct professors. (Id. at 18, 19.) During their first semester teaching, adjunct professors will undergo an evaluation. (Id. at 17.) Each adjunct is subsequently reviewed every three years. (Id.) In addition, adjunct professors are reviewed if problems arise, such as when a student complains about the professor. (Id.) The Adjunct Handbook states that “[k]ey factors for assessment of adjunct faculty” include “classroom visitation, evaluation of course planning (syllabus), examination of grading practices, cooperation with due dates, review of student performance and other applicable items . . . .” (Handbook.) Dean Robbins personally evaluates at most one adjunct professor per semester, and only those professors that have been identified as “having problems.” (Robbins Dep. 23 (noting that it is her “job . . . to handle the more difficult cases.”).) From July 1, 2013, through June 22, 2016, Dean Robbins conducted approximately five to ten adjunct evaluations. (Id. at 41-42.)

         When she evaluates a professor through in-class observation, Dean Robbins “look[s] for organization, student engagement” and a “diversity of pedagogies.” (Robbins Dep. 48.) With regard to “diversity of pedagogies, ” Dean Robbins explained that she looks to see if the professor is “just standing and lecturing to the class for an hour and a half, or are there different components of the class, where students are more interactive.” (Id.) Dean Robbins testified that she has no written criteria that she follows when conducting in-class observations of adjunct professors. (Id. at 50-51.)

         In October 2014, Plaintiff met with a student in the faculty lounge at Holy Family for tutoring and to discuss the student's grade. (Lipschultz Dep. 20-21, 29.) During Plaintiff's time at Holy Family, the faculty room had frequently been used to meet with and tutor students. (Id. at 29-30.) When Dean Robbins witnessed Plaintiff in the faculty lounge with the student, she asked Plaintiff to meet in her office. (Id. at 20.) There, Dean Robbins “chastised” Plaintiff for permitting a student in the faculty lounge and for discussing the student's grade around other people. (Id. at 20-21.) Dean Robbins believed this could violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”). (See Robbins Dep. 82-83.) Holy Family does not have a written policy that prohibits adjunct professors from meeting with students in the faculty lounge. (Id. at 84.) Rather, Dean Robbins decided it should be a school policy after she became Dean. (Id.) Plaintiff was not aware of this policy, and testified that had she been aware, she would not have met the student in the faculty lounge. (Lipschultz Dep. 29.) The Faculty Handbook addresses the lack of office space for adjunct professors to meet with students; however, the book does not mention anything about the use of the faculty lounge. (Handbook 3.) After the meeting with Dean Robbins, Plaintiff never met students in the faculty lounge. (Robbins Dep. 90.)

         On December 1, 2014, Dean Robbins e-mailed Plaintiff, informing her that she would be conducting an in-class observation of Plaintiff the following day. (Dec. 1, 2014 E-mail, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. J.) Dean Robbins scheduled the in-class observation as part of Plaintiff's evaluation. (Id.)[3] The following day, Dean Robbins observed Plaintiff's 3:00 p.m. Spanish 101 class. (Dec. 1 E-mail; Lipschultz Eval., Pl.'s Resp. Ex. F; Robbins Dep. 90.) Dean Robbins's observation lasted approximately thirty minutes of the ninety-minute class. (Lipschultz Dep. 23-24.)[4] This is the shortest amount of time that Dean Robbins spent during an in-class observation of an adjunct professor. (Robbins Dep. 49.) On December 5, 2014, Plaintiff contacted Dean Robbins to inquire about classes for the following semester. (Pl.'s Resp. Ex. K.) Dean Robbins responded that one of her course sections may be cancelled due to under-enrollment, and that she would like to meet with Plaintiff the following week to go over the evaluation. (Id.)

         On December 18, 2014, Dean Robbins, together with Assistant Dean Stokes-Duplass, met with Plaintiff in Dean Robbins's office. (Robbins Dep. 90-91.) Dean Robbins testified that the purpose of the meeting was to go over Plaintiff's evaluation and to inform Plaintiff that her adjunct position would not be renewed. (Id. at 91.) During the meeting, Dean Robbins provided Plaintiff with the evaluation, and informed Plaintiff that Holy Family would not be renewing her contract for the next semester because the evaluation “revealed several areas of concern.” (Id. at 92.)[5] Specifically, Dean Robbins based her decision to not renew Plaintiff's contract on Plaintiff's syllabus, which was lacking key components, on the in-class ...

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