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Secrist v. Mellor

April 27, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas W. Phillips United States District Judge


The plaintiff initiated the instant lawsuit against her previous supervisor based on violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff claims that she was subjected to a hostile work environment based on gender discrimination that resulted in constructive discharge. The defendant has moved for summary judgment [Doc. 11] asserting that none of the alleged acts, perceived by plaintiff to have been wrongful, were based on her gender and that none of them remotely resemble violations of the Constitution. In addition, the defendant claims that he is entitled to qualified immunity from the plaintiff's claims. The plaintiff has responded in opposition, and the defendant has replied. For the reasons that follow, defendant's motion [Doc. 11] is GRANTED.

I. Summary of the Facts

As the law requires, all disputed facts and inferences are resolved most favorably for the plaintiff. The Court merely provides an abridged summary of facts for the purposes of this opinion.

In 1993, plaintiff Beth Ann Secrist became the University's Director of the Language Resource Center ("LRC") in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literature ("Department"). The LRC functions to support language instruction and research for the Department. The LRC includes a computer lab and various audiovisual materials that may either be used in the LRC or checked out by faculty. On July 1, 2002, the University implemented a new job classification and compensation system. As a result, plaintiff's title changed from "Director" to "Coordinator II." There was no impact to plaintiff's income. Since plaintiff was dissatisfied with the change, she appealed her job classification in October of 2002. Ultimately, plaintiff's title was elevated to "Coordinator III," and she received a pay increase of over $5,000 in March of 2004. There is no evidence that Dr. Mellor had any role in plaintiff's job title or compensation.

In July of 2003, the University placed William Rhodes in the LCR as the first full-time Information Technology (IT) Administrator. He had been employed by the University since 1987, was transferred from another department to the LCR, was to be supervised by Ms. Secrist, and was to continue to receive the same rate of pay as he received in his former position.*fn1 Although plaintiff initially endorsed the arrival of Mr. Rhodes, she was troubled that she, as the supervisor of Mr. Rhodes, received less compensation than Mr. Rhodes. In April of 2004, she notified the Director of the University's Office of Equity and Diversity that she still was "not satisfied with [her] job classification and compensation" and threatened to take "legal action" if the issues were not resolved.

In February of 2004, defendant Dr. Jeff Mellor, a professor of German language, became plaintiff's supervisor as the Interim Head of the Department. Ms. Secrist was under his supervision for approximately seven months before leaving her position of employment at the University, taking a similar position at the George Mason University in Virginia at a better rate of pay. During the seven months, plaintiff avers that Dr. Mellor's conduct and behavior made her working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.*fn2 Plaintiff relates a handful of incidents/issues to establish a hostile work environment created by Dr. Mellor, to which she was subjected.

For instance, Dr. Mellor implemented a change of the audiovisual lending policy for the faculty. Under the old policy, the faculty were to submit requests by 3:00 p.m. for equipment needed the following day. Ms. Secrist stated that this reservation policy allowed her more time to continue in performing "higher level information technology tasks," as she would not be interrupted from her work to retrieve equipment. Under the new policy, the staff of the LCR, including the plaintiff, would be required to take equipment requests of the faculty without a reservation. Dr. Mellor asserts that this more flexible policy better served the faculty as the old policy was unduly restrictive. However, plaintiff perceived this change in policy to be Dr. Mellor's intentional indirect act to force her to perform more menial tasks. The record reflects dialogue and acts of both accommodation and opposition between the parties regarding the equipment lending policy. Ultimately, Dr. Mellor directed Ms. Secrist to implement the revised policy, saying that he welcomed input prior to the formation of the policy, but that once the policy had been formulated he expected it to be carried out.

Also, Ms. Secrist alleges that Dr. Mellor planned to oust her from her position as the LRC Coordinator, upgrade the position to a faculty position (requiring a Ph.D, which Ms. Secrist did not possess), and then fill it with the husband of another faculty member, Dr. Bernard Martin. However, the record reflects that Dr. Mellor proposed to upgrade the position after plaintiff's resignation. In response, Ms. Secrist asserts that Dr. Mellor voiced his objective to create a position for Dr. Martin before Dr. Mellor was appointed to Interim Head of the Department. Regardless, Dr. Martin was not selected for the appointment, although he did possess the appropriate experience and credentials and had applied for the position. Moreover, the University did not fund Dr. Mellor's proposal to upgrade the LRC Coordinator position. Rather, the proposal was abandoned. In November of 2004, a woman was selected for the position that plaintiff had vacated. Plaintiff states that the woman was thereafter fired. However, defendant states that since plaintiff resigned from her position on short notice, just after the beginning of a new academic year, the replacement was hired on a purely temporary appointment, as plaintiff herself and other witnesses on behalf of the plaintiff had testified.

Plaintiff further contends that Dr. Mellor's use of a faculty survey about staff performance was discriminatory. Dr. Mellor states that he wanted input from the faculty as to how the staff was generally perceived, how well the department was functioning in all of its activities, and what, if any, improvements could be sought. The survey was for the entire teaching faculty in regard to each staff member, both male and female, and both in the main office and in the LRC. The results were compiled by Dr. Mellor and discussed privately with each staff member. The results were not placed in personnel files, were not made public, and were not retained. As to Ms. Secrist, Dr. Mellor called attention to matters of concern or dissatisfaction among the teaching faculty with respect to her performance. For reason, Dr. Mellor contends that if a staff member received negative evaluations arising from teaching staff numbering over 100, the particular individual showed patterns of dissatisfaction. Accordingly, Dr. Mellor believed that such staff members, including Ms. Secrist, would have wanted to be aware of such concerns.

Additionally, plaintiff states that, in contrast to Dr. Mellor's demeaning treatment toward her, he showed great deference and respect toward Mr. Rhodes. Further, plaintiff argues that Dr. Mellor would meet privately with Mr. Rhodes to discuss technological planning for the LCR. Ms. Secrist asserts that Dr. Mellor's impression was that she "had a lot of technical knowledge but not enough to stand in for Mr. Rhodes or do the kind of things that 'really only he can do.'" Ms. Secrist states that if Mr. Rhodes had not been available in 2003, she could have handled the new technology needs going forward. Plaintiff also alludes to an incident in which she was testing some audio files while wearing headphones. Plaintiff was upset when Dr. Mellor assumed that she was listening to music and not working. Plaintiff believes that Dr. Mellor would not have articulated the same assumption about her male assistants.

Besides the above issues and instances, Ms. Secrist relates extensive details about her relationship with her former supervisor, Dr. Carolyn Hodges; discusses her years of technical experience before 2004; and articulates comments from two technical consultants' reports indicating that she should be utilized in handling complex technological matters, rather than perform clerical work. In reply, Dr. Mellor states that none of the above has anything to do with gender discrimination.

Plaintiff also puts forth testimony from Dr. Dolly Young, a professor in the Modern Foreign Language Department and an Associate Head of the Department, in support of her claims. Dr. Young felt that Dr. Mellor spoke to his female secretary in a demeaning manner. In reference to Ms. Secrist, Dr. Young would talk to Dr. Mellor to attempt to underscore Ms. Secrist's value, as well as articulate the numerous matters that Ms. Secrist was handling. Although Dr. Young felt Dr. Mellor did not take her endorsements of Ms. Secrist seriously, she states that Dr. Mellor was not "dismissive" of her arguments. Also, Dr. Young states that she did not observe Dr. Mellor and Ms. Secrist personally interact. Further, Dr. Young could not say whether Dr. Mellor treated Ms. Secrist any differently because she was a woman.

Additionally, Ms. Secrist offers the testimony of Dr. Hodges to support her claims. Besides asserting Ms. Secrist's beneficial and valuable traits, Dr. Hodges states that she supported Ms. Secrist in the equipment lending policy. Dr. Hodges also attests to conversations that she had with Dr. Mellor regarding the equipment reservation policy. She recalls that Dr. Mellor expressed that the "service to the faculty when they needed it was of utmost importance to him." Further, Dr. Hodges stated that she did ...

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