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Knight v. Slippery Rock University

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 12, 2017

ROGER KNIGHT, Plaintiff,
v.
SLIPPERY ROCK UNIVERSITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CATHY BISSOON JUDGE

         I. MEMORANDUM

         Pending before the Court are cross Motions for Summary Judgment filed by Plaintiff Roger Knight (Doc. 27) and Defendant Slippery Rock University (Doc. 31). For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 31) will be GRANTED, and Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 27) will be DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         Roger Knight (“Plaintiff”) filed this lawsuit against his former employer, Slippery Rock University (“Defendant”), alleging unlawful retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that Defendant fired him for participating in an investigation of charges filed with the EEOC by two employees of the Slippery Rock Police Department. (Compl. ¶¶31-33).

         The generally undisputed facts of the case are as follows:

         Plaintiff was employed by Defendant from around 1997, until his termination on March 6, 2014, holding various positions within the university's police department before becoming Parking Manager in 2012. (Def.'s Stmt. of Facts (Doc. 33) at ¶3; Pl.'s Counterstatement of Material Facts (Doc. 39) at ¶3; Pl.'s Stmt. of Facts (Doc. 29) at ¶2). Prior to becoming Parking Manager, Plaintiff was Captain with Defendant's police department, during which time a Slippery Rock information technology (“IT”) employee set up Plaintiff with “administrator rights” to Slippery Rock Police Department and Parking Office's local computer server. (Doc. 33 at ¶¶13, 35-36; Doc. 39 at ¶¶13, 35-36; Doc. 29 at ¶3). As an administrator, Plaintiff had access to a shared server that was to be used for business functions, including folders for individual officers that are otherwise only accessible by that officer. (Doc. 33 at ¶45; Doc. 29 at ¶¶10-11).

         In September and October of 2011, two employees of the Slippery Rock Police Department, Caitlin Corrigan and Koah Pentz filed discrimination claims with the EEOC against Slippery Rock based on allegations against Plaintiff, ultimately bringing complaints in federal court. (Doc. 33 at ¶¶23-25; Doc. 39 at ¶¶23-25). In January 2013, Plaintiff received litigation hold letters from Defendant's internal legal counsel relating to Corrigan and Pentz's lawsuits, instructing Plaintiff to preserve and maintain all information he had in his possession, custody or control relating to the lawsuits. (Doc. 33 at ¶¶26, 29: Doc. 39 at ¶¶26, 29). Plaintiff also received letters in December of 2013 reminding him of his continuing obligations regarding the litigation holds. (Doc. 33 at ¶¶28, 31: Doc. 39 at ¶¶28, 31). Plaintiff did not understand anything in the litigation hold letters or the reminder letters as instructing him to access the files of other members of Slippery Rock's Police Department, nor did anyone ever instruct Plaintiff to access such files. (Doc. 33 at ¶¶61-64; Doc. 39 at ¶¶61-64).

         Nevertheless, between June 4, 2012 and January 10, 2014, while Plaintiff was Parking Manager and no longer Captain, Plaintiff accessed a number of files belonging to Officers Corrigan, Pentz, Frank Davis and Assistant Chief Windy Stafford. (Doc. 33 at ¶54; Doc. 39 at ¶54). Plaintiff stated that he accessed these files because he was told to provide information that would “help [Slippery Rock] win this case.” (Doc. 33 at ¶53; Doc. 39 at ¶53). He also stated that he accessed the files of Officer Davis and Assistant Chief Stafford to find documents that could bolster Slippery Rock's defense. (Doc. 33 at ¶65; Doc. 39 at ¶65). Plaintiff did not provide any information that was harmful to the defense of Slippery Rock in the Corrigan or Pentz lawsuits and testified that he “was going to be probably their best witness as to defending [the Corrigan lawsuit].” (Doc. 33 at ¶¶66, 67; Doc. 39 at ¶¶66, 67).

         On October 18, 2013, Plaintiff showed his supervisor, Chief Michael Simmons, a document prepared by Corrigan addressed to Chief Simmons, and Plaintiff asked the Chief what he intended to do about the allegations Corrigan made against Plaintiff. (Doc. 33 at ¶¶68-69; Doc. 39 at ¶¶68-69). After, Chief Simmons reported Plaintiff's possession of the files to Defendant's Assistant Vice President for Human Resources, Lynn Motyl, and internal legal counsel, and together they decided that Simmons would try to determine how Plaintiff had accessed these files. (Doc. 33 at ¶78; Doc. 29 at ¶78). When Simmons was unsuccessful, Defendant hired a third-party forensics expert, Bit-x-Bit, to investigate Plaintiff's access of the documents. (Doc. 33 at ¶80; Doc. 39 at ¶80). Plaintiff was suspended with pay in January 2014, while the investigation was ongoing. (Doc. 33 at ¶83; Doc. 39 at ¶83). Bit-x-Bit issued a report on February 7, 2014, indicating what files Plaintiff accessed, when he accessed them, when his permissions were created, and providing recommendations of limiting Plaintiff's access and creating an administrator rights policy. (Doc. 29 at ¶27). Bit-x-Bit reissued the report on February 11, 2014 without the recommendations at the request of Defendant. (Doc. 29 at ¶28).

         Following the report, Plaintiff was called in for two pre-disciplinary conferences. The first was on February 13, 2014, during which Plaintiff was asked to turn over all the documents he had accessed, to which he refused. (Doc. 33 at ¶85; Doc. 39 at ¶85). However, Plaintiff did turn over some documents after the conference. (Doc. 33 at ¶86; Doc. 39 at ¶86). Then, at a second conference on February 25, 2014, Plaintiff provided additional documents he had not provided previously. (Doc. 33 at ¶¶87-88; Doc. 39 at ¶¶87-88). Plaintiff was terminated on March 6, 2014. (Doc. 33 at ¶89; Doc. 39 at ¶89).

         Defendant identified several reasons for Plaintiff's termination in his termination letter. First, Slippery Rock determined that Plaintiff violated Slippery Rock's Policies Concerning Computer Use “by failing to act responsibly, use good judgment and exercise civility, and understand the appropriate use of assigned IT resources.” (Doc. 34, Ex. 3). Additionally, Plaintiff's “unauthorized access of folders for other Officers was not for purposes of university coursework, university research projects, university employment activities or university communications, but rather for your own personal gain” in violation of the same policy. Id. Furthermore, Plaintiff had to “remote in, ” or separately log in, to view the information that he did, suggesting he knew of his administrator access. Id. And finally, Plaintiff did not fully cooperate with the investigation by handing over all of the documents he had gathered. Id. Therefore, Plaintiff could no longer be trusted as Parking Manager. Id.

         Plaintiff has highlighted several inaccuracies in the termination letter. First, Lynn Motyl, who wrote the letter, later testified that she was not sure what personal gain Plaintiff received from his access of these files. (Doc. 29 at ¶31). Ms. Motyl also testified that Defendant lacked any policy regarding administrator rights, that she was aware that Plaintiff was accessing the documents as part of the ongoing litigation against Defendant, and that the reason for Plaintiff's termination was the “multiple access” of certain documents. (Doc. 29 at ¶¶32-35). Furthermore, she testified that Mr. Knight's actions were akin to an employee who accesses the desk of another employee without permission, and she identified two examples of that situation in the past: one in which a janitor removed files from the Vice President's desk, and a second when Chief Simmons accessed Plaintiff's desk attempting to find out how Plaintiff had ...


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