United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division
DR. DONNA ASHFORD, Plaintiff,
TENNESSEE BOARD OF REGENTS, Defendant.
A. TRAUGER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
before the court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by
the defendant (Doc. No. 16), the Tennessee Board of Regents
(“TBR”), to which the plaintiff, Dr. Donna
Ashford, has filed a Response (Doc. No. 20), and TBR has
filed a Reply (Doc. No. 25). For the reasons discussed
herein, the motion will be granted, and Ashford's claims
will be dismissed.
is an African-American former employee of TBR, most recently
serving as Director of Support Services for the Regents
Online Degree Program (“RODP”). Ashford worked at
TBR for 28 years. In that time, she received high performance
evaluations and was never cited or disciplined for any
back to the mid-1970s, TBR has rented the third and sixth
floors of an office building owned by Genesco Corporation
(“Genesco”), a footwear and apparel company. TBR
employees regularly take breaks or walks on the
building's fifth floor, which is occupied by Genesco.
Genesco often places discarded, damaged, rejected, or
otherwise non-prime shoes in hallway bins on the fifth floor,
marked by signs indicating that the shoes are free for taking
by passersby. Ashford was never instructed not to take shoes
from the fifth floor.
5, 2015, Ashford went for a lunchtime walk on the
building's fifth floor. She encountered in the hallway a
box containing boots. (Doc. No. 27-1 ¶ 8.) Although the
boots were not in a bin and there was no sign indicating that
they were free for taking, Ashford took the boots back to her
floor. (Id. ¶ 5.) She left them in a recycling
room, where they were located by TBR personnel. (Doc. No.
19-1 ¶ 9.) Ashford was eventually identified, and the
incident was reported to TBR human resources personnel
(“HR”). When TBR HR confronted Ashford about the
boots, Ashford acknowledged that she had taken them, stating
that she believed they were “trash.” (Doc. No.
27-1 ¶ 8.) She apologized for what she characterized as
a miscommunication and offered to return the boots
immediately. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 30-31.) The boots were
returned by TBR personnel to Genesco security, and
Ashford's supervisor, Dr. Patrick Wilson, was notified of
the incident. (Doc. 19-1 ¶ 9-11.) Wilson recommended
termination, and TBR's Vice Chancellor agreed.
8, 2015, TBR Chancellor John Morgan accepted the
recommendation and terminated Ashford. Ashford's position
remained vacant for nearly two years. In February 2017, the
position was reconfigured as Campus Relations Manager, a
non-director level position with no supervisory functions.
The position was filled by Colbe Wilson, a Caucasian female.
The position's requirements were altered to include a
Master's Degree, which Wilson possessed but Ashford did
not, and to require only two years of job-related experience
(down from three years, which Ashford possessed but Wilson
2015, Ashford's had attorney sent TBR a letter outlining
Ashford's allegations of wrongful termination. As a
result, TBR conducted an internal investigation into the
matter, for which Ashford declined to be interviewed. (Doc.
No. 19-2 ¶ 5.) The investigating employee determined
that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that Ashford
was discharged for any improper reason. (Id. ¶
6.) Ashford filed a complaint with the EEOC and received a
Right to Sue letter. On May 5, 2016, Ashford filed suit in
this court, alleging that TBR discriminated against her in
violation of Title VII and the ADEA. This was the second time
that Ashford had brought allegations of racial discrimination
against TBR. In 2013, Ashford complained to TBR administrator
Dr. Kay Clark that Ashford was given more responsibilities
than similarly-situated Caucasian employees, despite being
paid less. (Doc. No. 20-1 ¶ 5.) No action was taken.
faced several other issues with racial dynamics in recent
years. Dr. Patrick Wilson-Ashford's Caucasian supervisor
who recommended her termination-has had multiple
discrimination complaints filed against him by TBR employees.
At least two of those employees specifically complained that
Wilson treated employees differently or unfairly because of
race. Another Caucasian TBR employee, Lisa Hall, was put on
probation for an incident in which she yelled at, cursed at,
and threatened an African American temporary employee.
(Id. ¶ 17.)
another Caucasian TBR employee, Dr. David Tiller, drew
criticism from fellow employees for a training exercise that
was perceived as racially offensive. (Doc. No. 27-2 ¶
5.) Tiller tied together ropes used as props in the training
exercise and hung them on the wall outside Ashford's
office. (Id.) Tiller made comments perceived as
racially offensive before the exercise, including a joke
about “having a hanging” with regard to the
ropes. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 15-c.) A complaint was filed by a
colleague in Ashford's department, and the ropes were
removed from the wall. (Doc. No. 27-2 ¶ 5.) Tiller was
Rule of Civil Procedure 56 requires the court to grant a
motion for summary judgment if “the movant shows that
there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the
movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). If a moving defendant shows that there is
no genuine issue of material fact as to at least one
essential element of the plaintiff's claim, the burden
shifts to the plaintiff to provide evidence beyond the
pleadings, “set[ting] forth specific facts showing that
there is a genuine issue for trial.” Moldowan v.
City of Warren, 578 F.3d 351, 374 (6th Cir. 2009);
see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317,
322-23 (1986). “In evaluating the evidence, the court
must draw all inferences in the light most favorable to the
non-moving party.” Moldowan, 578 F.3d at 374
(citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio
Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)).
stage, “‘the judge's function is not . . . to
weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but
to determine whether there is a genuine issue for
trial.'” Id. (quoting Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986)). But
“[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in
support of the [non-moving party's] position will be
insufficient, ” and the party's proof must be more
than “merely colorable.” Anderson, 477
U.S. at 252. An issue of fact is ...