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Johnson v. Oakland University

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

January 22, 2018

Carmen Johnson, Plaintiff,
v.
Oakland University, Defendant.

          Stephanie Dawkins Davis U.S. Magistrate Judge

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [68]

          Arthur J. Tarnow Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Carmen Johnson, an African-American woman, filed a Complaint [1] on July 14, 2015 alleging that Defendant Oakland University (“OU”) violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, by discharging her because of her race.[1]

         Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [68] on June 21, 2017. Plaintiff filed a Response [70] on July 26, 2017. Defendant filed a Reply [72] on August 8, 2017. The Court held a hearing on the Motion on December 19, 2017.

         For the reasons stated below, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [68] is GRANTED.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Defendant OU hired Plaintiff in April 2008 as an Administrative Professional in its School of Nursing's (“SON”) Licensed Practical Nursing (“LPN”) program.[2] Prior to her employment with OU, Plaintiff earned an MBA and a BSN.

         In 2011, Plaintiff was promoted to program director at OU's Riverview Institute location in Detroit, Michigan. At that time, Dr. Barbara Penprase was Plaintiff's supervisor. Penprase, a white woman, is a senior SON faculty member. She has earned a PhD and was a tenured Associate Professor at all applicable times involved in this litigation. Plaintiff reported to Penprase until July 2013.[3]

         In 2012, Plaintiff learned that her co-worker, Jackie Glover, had been diagnosed with cancer. In an effort to assist Glover, the SON organized a fundraising event. The fundraiser was a skating party. To encourage participation, Plaintiff sought to offer her students extra credit for their involvement. Plaintiff testified that an unnamed student in the second degree RN program, who worked as a math tutor, suggested to Plaintiff that she give students extra credit in exchange for participation.

         Following the conversation with the unnamed student, Plaintiff testified that she asked Penprase whether she was permitted to offer students extra credit for participating in the fundraiser. Plaintiff explained to Penprase that “the students would sell tickets to a fundraiser - to a skating party at $10 each and they would get 10 extra credit points towards their lowest quiz score.” Pl. Dep. 46:14-18, Dec. 9, 2015. Plaintiff further testified that Penprase approved of the proposal.

         Penprase authorized Plaintiff to give students extra credit for participating in the skating fundraiser for Glover. Penprase testified: “[A]t that time I said if extra credit is given, you can give extra credit but you have to have a variety of different extra credits so students can choose what type of extra credit that they can do.” Penprase Dep. 82:17-22, July 19, 2016.

         In 2012, OU did not have a written policy prohibiting the award of extra credit to students who participated in fundraisers.

         The skating party took place sometime before October 2012. The money raised was given to Glover.

         After the success of the first skating party, Plaintiff hosted a second skating party in November 2012. The purpose of the second skating fundraiser was to raise money for teaching supplies, such as simulation dummies. Plaintiff testified that Penprase gave her permission to offer 10 points extra credit to students who sold tickets to the second fundraiser. Pl. Dep. at 80:1-3. Plaintiff gave the proceeds to Assistant Dean Cheryl McPherson, who directed her to deposit the money with McPherson's assistant.

         In April 2013, Plaintiff hosted a third skating party to raise money for teaching supplies and testified that she again sought Penprase's permission to offer extra credit to her students for selling tickets. After the April 2013 skating fundraiser, Dean McPherson told Plaintiff that she “could not collect money [from students] unless [she] had a Student Nurse Association.” Id. at 69:9-20. Prior to April 2013, McPherson had not communicated to Plaintiff that she should not collect cash from students.

         On August 11, 2013, JoeAnna Ingram, an instructor who reported to Plaintiff, hosted a fundraiser for infants with SIDS at the Detroit Zoo, called the “Jungle Jubilee.” A $35.00 minimum donation was required, and participation in the activity was worth ten extra credit points.[4] Plaintiff testified that the Jungle Jubilee was “under Ms. Ingram, ” who received permission from Penprase to offer extra credit in exchange for donations. Id. at 75:12-16.

         In fall 2013, Plaintiff informed some of her students that they would not be allowed to take the State's Licensing Examination to become a certified LPN because they had twice failed the HESI Examination. Plaintiff submits that several students were angry because they could not sit for the Exam.

         A group of students complained to Monahan (who had replaced Penprase in 2013) about being “forced” to participate in the skating fundraisers. Monahan testified that she received grievances from approximately 12-14 students, complaining “about not having enough money to obtain extra credit.” Monahan Dep. 11:16-17; 12:18-19, Feb. 2, 2017.

         Monahan took the students' concerns to the Dean. In November 2013, David Vartanian, an internal auditor at OU, began an investigation of Plaintiff and Ingram in response to the students' complaints. Vartanian testified that he dedicated 750 hours to the investigation.[5] Vartanian Dep. 11:17-18, June 29, 2016. As part of the investigation, Vartanian interviewed five students who complained about “having to pay cash for extra credit.” Vartanian also interviewed Penprase. Vartanian's notes and testimony indicate that he was aware of Penprase's approval of some fundraising activities.

         On December 3, 2013, Plaintiff was placed on paid suspension for alleged misconduct. On December 9, 2013 and December 13, 2013, Vartanian, along with other OU faculty, interviewed Plaintiff.

         On January 5, 2014, Vartanian emailed OU Provost, James Lentini, stating, “from Internal Audits standpoint the matter is academic misconduct regarding the offer of cash payments for extra credit . . . . I believe UHR and AHR need to make a decision.” [Dkt. #68-32].

         Also in January 2014, a meeting took place at which Vartanian presented his findings to the Provost. Vartanian did not inform the Provost that Penprase had approved of some of Plaintiff's fundraising activities.

         In February 2014, upon the close of the investigation, Plaintiff was given the opportunity to voluntarily resign, but declined. On February 7, 2014, Defendant terminated Plaintiff for misconduct.

         The parties do not dispute that the Provost made the final decision to fire Plaintiff and that he was unaware of Plaintiff's race when he discharged her. The Provost testified that the “extra credit as a result of fundraising” was the “prime factor in ...


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