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Ashford v. Tennessee Board of Regents

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

November 29, 2017

DR. DONNA ASHFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
TENNESSEE BOARD OF REGENTS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          ALETA A. TRAUGER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending 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.

         BACKGROUND

         Ashford 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 improper conduct.

         Dating 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.

         On May 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. (Id.)

         On May 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 did not).

         In June 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. (Id.)

         TBR has 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.)

         Yet 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 not terminated.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal 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)).

         At this 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 ...


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