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Shearn v. West Chester University of Pennsylvania

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 18, 2017

JODI SHEARN, Plaintiff,
v.
WEST CHESTER UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          Tucker, C.J.

         Before the Court are Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 29), Plaintiff's Response in Opposition thereto (Doc. 33), and Defendants' Reply to Plaintiff's Response in Opposition (Doc. 35). Upon consideration of the Parties' submissions, the Motion is GRANTED.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, a former temporary professor at West Chester University (“WCU”), a public state university, sued WCU and Defendant Jerome Williams, the chairman of the WCU Department of Languages and Cultures (“Department”). Plaintiff alleges that Defendants retaliated against her for: (1) reporting Defendants' alleged intentional violation of a provision of a collective bargaining agreement relating to the treatment of temporary professors, and (2) filing an employment grievance with WCU and then later filing suit against Defendants. Defendants filed the present Motion for Summary Judgment seeking judgment on these two counts.

         At WCU, professors are divided into three categories: tenured, tenure-track, and temporary. Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. 4, ¶¶ 4-6. A professor is considered temporary if the professor is hired on a semester-to-semester basis or on a year-to-year basis. Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. 4, ¶ 4. Temporary professors are further divided into two categories: (1) temporary full-time professors who teach at least four courses per semester, and (2) temporary part-time professors who teach less than four courses per semester. Williams Dep. 35. Temporary professors are also known as adjunct professors. Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n 22, ¶ 3. Temporary professors' teaching schedules are determined by the deans of the various university departments upon consideration of any scheduling recommendations made by the various department chairpersons. Vermeulen Dep. 22-23. At the time the issues in this case arose, the chair of the Department was Defendant Williams, and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, of which the Department is a part, was Dean Lori Vermeulen. Id. at 19.

         Under a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) that governs the relationship between WCU and a union known as the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (“APSCUF”), temporary full-time professors have certain rights. Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. 5, ¶ 12. In particular, Section 11(G) of the CBA, provides that:

[A] full-time, temporary faculty member, who has worked at a University for five (5) full, consecutive academic years in the same department, shall be placed in the tenure-track status, if recommended by the majority of the regular department faculty in accordance with the procedure developed by that department faculty.

Defs.' Mem. of Law in Supp. 5, ¶ 12; Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n 22, ¶ 12. Eligibility for a Section 11(G) conversion vote does not guarantee that the eligible temporary professor will, in fact, receive a positive vote recommending conversion to tenure-track status. Shearn Dep. 46:16-20. Department chairs are also members to the CBA and their responsibilities and duties are similarly defined under the CBA. Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n 29, ¶ 85.

         A. In Summer 2013, Plaintiff Meets With The Union To Discuss Frustrations Regarding Her Employment And Rights Under The CBA

         In May 2013, Plaintiff, who, by that time, had been a temporary Spanish professor at WCU for several years, met with local APSCUF President Lisa Millhous to discuss, among other things, the fact that a new instructor to the Department had been selected, over Plaintiff, to teach summer courses that Plaintiff had requested to teach. Shearn Dep. 37-39. In light of her not having been selected to teach a number of summer courses, Plaintiff wished to clarify her understanding of the process by which courses are assigned to temporary professors, as well as to learn about her rights, if any, under the CBA. Id. Plaintiff explained that she contacted Millhous because:

I [had] reached out to Mr. Williams and requested summer teaching assignments . . . . I was confused to learn that a new adjunct (with no prior history in our department) had been hired and that he/she was given four summer courses. Numerous incidents occurred consecutively that brought me to the union president, Lisa Milhaus. I was interested in understanding how our chair arrives at his decisions and what rights, if any, were afforded to me, a temp faculty member. She listened to my issues and told me about article 11G of the CBA and that departments were implementing this article.

Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n Ex. M, at 3.

         Plaintiff also explained that by the time of her meeting with Millhous, Defendant Williams:

was not responding to [Plaintiff] at all. And at that point, like I knew-and it was happening to a lot of us. A lot of weird things were happening . . . changes in our schedules, and you know, not teaching classes that we had previously taught. So I basically wanted to know . . . well how was this decided how do they bring somebody out from another . . . place somebody that they don't even know and- you know, and bring them in to teach all of these open classes.

         Shearn Dep. 38-39. After this meeting, Plaintiff reached out to the other temporary professors in the Department to gauge their interest in a potential informational meeting with Millhous to discuss temporary professor rights under the CBA, including, among other things, Section 11(G). Pl.'s Mem. of Law in Opp'n 22, ¶ 19.

         B. In Early Fall 2013, Union Representatives Meet With Adjuncts To Answer Questions About The CBA

         In September, 2013, as a result of Plaintiff's reaching out to other temporary professors, Millhous and Dr. Jen Bacon, another professor and union representative, met with a group of temporary professors. Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n 22, ¶ 21. The purpose of the meeting was to answer any questions that the temporary professors might have had regarding their rights and responsibilities under the CBA. Shearn Dep. 52 (testifying that the meeting took place for “a lot of different reasons. There were a lot of people that were, you know, coming up on 11-G, too. So yeah . . . it was basically just to spread that knowledge. And of course, people . . . you know, were . . . very, very surprised that-that it even existed”).

         After the meeting, Bacon allegedly approached Defendant Williams to discuss “the adjuncts, including WCU's Article 11(G) Policy.” Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n 8, ¶ 39. Meanwhile, in early Fall 2013, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Lori Vermeulen, approved a Department program aimed at hiring several new tenure-track faculty members. Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n 23, ¶ 27; see also Shearn Dep. 62:3-4. Ultimately, a number of Spanish professors and a German tenure-track professor were hired. Shearn Dep. 62:3-4; Williams Dep. 90:20-24.

         C. In December 2013, Defendant Williams Announces The Hiring Of Tenure-Track Faculty And The Effect On Available Courses For Adjuncts

         On or about November 26, 2013, Defendant Williams emailed the Department's adjunct professors to schedule a meeting to discuss the impact that the hiring of these new tenure-track professors would have on the Department. Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n 24, ¶ 28. The meeting ultimately took place in early December (“December Adjuncts Meeting”). Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n 9, ¶ 43. At the meeting, Defendant Williams announced that the Department would be hiring new tenure-track faculty members and that the hiring would result in a reduction in the number of courses available for adjunct professors to teach. See Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n Ex. M, at 3 (providing that it was Plaintiff's recollection that Defendant Williams explained that the “55 courses normally available to Spanish adjuncts would be reduced to 15”); Williams Dep. 118:18 (testifying that “many of the adjuncts would be reduced”).

         At this December Adjuncts Meeting, and for the first time, Professor Theresa Mehringer-another professor in the Department-asked Defendant Williams directly about the Department's position regarding Section 11(G). See Shearn Dep. 54 (providing that Plaintiff did not directly discuss Section 11(G) with Defendant Williams until the December Adjuncts Meeting); Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n 11, ¶ 52; Shearn Dep. 63 (recalling that Mehringer, and not Plaintiff, stated “‘What about article 11G? We have people who qualify for conversion'”). In response to Mehringer's inquiry, Defendant Williams explained that the Department “did not honor article 11G, that new people with skills that we don't currently employ is what the department wants.” Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n, Ex. M, at 3. The temporary professors “couldn't believe it.” Shearn Dep. 59:3-13. They were shocked to learn that the Department would not implement Section 11(G). Id. At that time, there was no further “follow-up by either Mehringer or by [Plaintiff] in response to Defendant Williams' remarks on Section 11(G). Id. at 59:12.

         D. Adjunct Professors' Teaching Schedules Released; Plaintiff Receives One Fewer Class Than Prior Semester

         After this meeting, on December 23, 2013, teaching schedules for the Spring semester were released and showed that two people, Theresa Mehringer and Plaintiff, had a reduced schedule relative to the prior semester. Vermeulen Dep. 82; Shearn Dep. 123. As a result of the reduction of Plaintiff's schedule from a full to a partial load, Plaintiff no longer qualified for certain benefits. Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n 12, ¶ 61. Though she was unaware that she would have qualified for a Section 11(G) conversion vote at that time, her reduced schedule also resulted in her loss of eligibility for a Section 11(G) conversion vote. Id.

         E. Plaintiff Viewed The Reduction In Her Course Load As Retaliation Prompting Plaintiff To Seek Assistance From The Dean

         After seeking help within the Department to increase her teaching load from partial to full, without success, Plaintiff contacted Dean Vermeulen. Shearn Dep. 144-45. The two met and Plaintiff expressed her frustration with her reduced course load and also reported what had transpired during the December Adjuncts Meeting between Defendant Williams and the adjuncts. Id. Following this meeting, Dean Vermeulen, however, chose not to increase Plaintiff's schedule because Dean Vermeulen had reviewed the Department schedule for all adjuncts and it appeared that the classes were generally evenly distributed. Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n 26, ¶ 40. Further, Dean Vermeulen reasoned that increasing Plaintiff's course load would reduce course loads for other temporary professors. See Id. (admitting that “Dean Vermeulen did not change [P]laintiff's schedule to add another class because she saw that more than one person had less than a full-time schedule, that the classes for temporary faculty seemed evenly distributed and if she changed [P]laintiff's schedule then someone else would have less than a full-time schedule.”).

         Though on a partial schedule, Plaintiff remained employed by WCU through Fall 2014 semester as she taught a course in WCU's Women's Studies Department. Shearn Dep. 191-92.

         F. Plaintiff Files An Employee Grievance; Plaintiff Files A Lawsuit

         In 2014, Plaintiff filed an employee grievance against WCU. Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n 26, ¶ 41; id. at 14, ¶ 74; id. at Ex. M. Among other things, Plaintiff focused her grievance on the adverse changes to her employment status and her frustration with the Department's apparent disregard for her efforts to improve WCU. See generally Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n, Ex. M. In her grievance, Plaintiff asserted:

I have learned through the years that I am expected to take what I am given and be thankful that I have four classes and can afford to receive medical benefits for my family
. . . .
I have been declined support from my chair to advance professionally and serve my department . . . . Refusal to support [my] efforts, or any effort to advance myself for that matter, became clear during the summer, 2013
. . . .
[Defendant Williams] did not thank us for our years of service while he was telling us that new faculty members ...

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