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Asika v. Wayne State University

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

October 21, 2016

ESTER ASIKA, Plaintiff,




         This matter is now before the Court on defendant's motion for summary judgment [docket entry 16]. Plaintiff has filed a response, and defendant has filed a reply. Pursuant to E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(f)(2), the Court shall decide this motion without a hearing.

         Plaintiff brings four claims of racial discrimination and retaliation under, respectively, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and Mich. Comp. Laws (“MCL”) § 37.2101 (2016), the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Plaintiff alleges that clinical nursing faculty and clinical preceptors were biased against her on account of her race and that the nurse practitioner program at Wayne State has a history of discrimination against African American students. Plaintiff is requesting punitive damages and future economic damages, in addition to costs, interest and attorney's fees.

         II. FACTS

         In the fall of 2012, plaintiff enrolled in Wayne State University's nurse practitioner program, specializing in pediatric primary care. The nurse practitioner program is a graduate level program that requires a bachelor's degree in nursing. The program is divided into an in-class portion and a practical portion. In the practical portion, the student works at a clinical site with a practicing nurse practitioner who has volunteered to serve as the student's preceptor. Failure in either portion results in a failure for the class as a whole.

         Plaintiff began the program's clinical portion in the fall of 2014 with class NUR 7225. Plaintiff was assigned to Ms. Quiana Stephens-Mack, an African American woman, as her preceptor, and Ms. Heather Bartlett served as her faculty advisor. Def.'s Mot., Ex. D. Plaintiff successfully completed both portions of NUR 7225, attributing part of her success to Ms. Bartlett. Id. Plaintiff praised Bartlett in an email, stating: “the fact that I know you want me to succeed encourages me to work harder and not give up. Thank you for your kindness.” Id.

         In early 2015, plaintiff enrolled in NUR 7226. Def.'s Mot., Ex. E. Bartlett again served as plaintiff's faculty advisor, and Joanne Howard served as plaintiff's preceptor. Id.

         Plaintiff was assigned to the pediatric primary care clinic at Detroit Medical Center Children's Hospital. Id. Plaintiff had previously requested this assignment and, at first, plaintiff enjoyed herself. Id. Plaintiff got along well with Howard, and she wrote in her first clinical evaluation:

I am in a good learning environment. My preceptor [Howard] is really taking out the time to go over documentation with me . . . . I am fortunate to have Joanne as my preceptor. She answers all my questions (which sometimes are too many) and she makes it very easy for me to ask my questions.


         On February 12, 2015, plaintiff met with Bartlett again for a performance review. Def.'s Mot., Ex. G. Bartlett and Howard informed plaintiff that they were preparing a performance improvement plan (“PIP”) for her due to a number of concerns regarding her basic clinical skills. Id. Howard listed her concerns in an email to Bartlett. Id. Although Howard considered plaintiff to be a “lovely person” who worked hard and was well liked, Howard felt that plaintiff lacked the skills necessary for success in the course.[1] Id. For example, when plaintiff was examining a patient with a condition known as “situs inversus, ” where the major organs are located on the opposite side of the body, plaintiff simply noted, “normal heart sounds.” Id. Further, this patient had a particular type of skin condition, which appeared in specific places; plaintiff wrote “rashes” without indicating the type of rash, its appearance, or location. Id. Howard later wrote that, without close supervision, the plaintiff could not work in the clinic as a nurse practitioner student. Id. at Ex. H. Plaintiff, who already knew a PIP was being prepared for her, was asked to not return to the clinic until the PIP had been prepared and she met with her supervisors. Id. at Ex. G.

         On February 16, 2016, after plaintiff received Howard's review, plaintiff raised allegations of discrimination in an email sent to Howard, Bartlett, Mack, Dr. Nantais-Smith (the nurse practitioner program director), Ms. Rose Williams (plaintiff's sister and an attorney), and the nurse coordinator for plaintiff's clinic. Def.'s Mot., Ex. I. In this email, plaintiff told program faculty (for the first time) about prejudices she felt she faced and claimed to have spoken to four other students with “similar bad situations.” Id. Plaintiff insinuated that these situations occurred because the students were African American and female. Id. Notably, plaintiff also felt that it was unjust to hold her to graduate-level standards, stating: “I should not be compared to other students because we all come with different expertise and experiences. It is unfair to expect me to perform at the same level with another student who has worked in a Pediatric [sic] setting before.” Id. (emphasis added). Plaintiff later testified that her performance was being held to the program's normal standards, and that this was “unfair.” See Pl. Dep., p. 116. Finally, plaintiff wished to attend future meetings with her counsel present, and she requested that the meeting to discuss her PIP be rescheduled for the convenience of herself and counsel. Def.'s Mot. Ex., I. That same day, plaintiff contacted counsel seeking representation on her discrimination claim. Pl.'s Resp., Ex. 2.

         Shortly after receiving plaintiff's email, Dr. Ramona Benkert, the Interim Associate Dean for Academic and Clinical Affairs for the Wayne State College of Nursing, responded by an email co-signed by Nantais-Smith. Def.'s Mot., Ex. J. Dean Benkert did not admit to plaintiff's claims, but suggested that plaintiff file a complaint with the university's Office of Equal Opportunity, id., which plaintiff never did, Pl.'s Dep., 144. Dr. Benkert also transferred plaintiff to a different clinical site-the Beaumont Hospital Neurology ...

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