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Crawford v. Columbus State Community College

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

November 21, 2017


          Terrence Kemp Magistrate Judge.



         This matter is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 71) of Defendants Columbus State Community College, et al. (“CSCC”). For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES CSCC's Motion for Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff Thomas Crawford's First Amendment Retaliation claim, GRANTS CSCC's Motion for Summary Judgment as to Crawford's Age Discrimination claim, and GRANTS CSCC's Motion for Summary Judgment as to Crawford's claims against CSCC President David Harrison.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Thomas Crawford, born September 25, 1943, has served as an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences at CSCC since 2002. (Am. Compl., ECF No. 21 at ¶¶ 1, 10). Crawford has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and an M.S. in nuclear engineering. For a few years, in addition to his position at CSCC, Crawford lectured at The Ohio State University (OSU). (Crawford Dep. I, ECF No. 64 at 12). Crawford has attested that student evaluations of his teaching have been “almost unanimously positive” and that the evaluations of his work conducted by Ken Fisher, Department Lead Instructor, have been “uniformly positive.” (Crawford Decl., ECF No. 72-1 at 2-3).

         In addition to his lecturing duties, Crawford has also been active in developing curriculum for CSCC's engineering program. Jack Cooley, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at CSCC, testified that one of CSCC's goals is to prepare students to transfer to schools like OSU. To accomplish that goal, CSCC decided to develop engineering courses and find a professor capable of teaching those courses. (Cooley Dep., ECF No. 63 at 99). To that end, roughly a decade into Crawford's employment, Michael Hailu, the Dean of Crawford's department (and a defendant here), asked Crawford to develop a “Fundamentals of Engineering” program. (ECF No. 21 at ¶ 14). Crawford developed the curriculum, which CSCC subsequently offered as two separate introductory engineering courses. (Id.). Crawford taught those courses as an adjunct in addition to training other lecturers on how to teach them. (Id.).

         But Crawford had also been the subject of scrutiny for some of his behavior on campus. From approximately 2003 to 2012, Crawford publicly posted pro-life literature and materials such as rosaries and small rubber replicas of fetuses that had been painted red to represent blood and make them look more “realistic.” (ECF No. 64, 36-37 at 72). Hailu also recalled that Crawford had shown a YouTube video about abortion to his students while they were in class. (Hailu Dep., ECF No. 67 at 66-69). Crawford, for his part, denies that allegation. (ECF No. 64 at 138).

         Crawford testified that he received significant backlash to his political and religious speech. On April 4, 2012, Crawford was slipped an anonymous note warning him to stop placing things on corkboards in classrooms. (Crawford Dep. II, ECF No. 65 at 13). About one week later, Crawford received another anonymous note that read: “Hey, Crawford, keep your right wing, nonsensical, religious nuttery out of my secular college or I will make it my personal mission in life that you are fired and never work in education in this state again.” (Appx. Crawford Dec., ECF No. 73-9).

         At one point, CSCC administrators began monitoring Crawford's public postings, and on April 23, 2012, Hailu spoke to Crawford about his activities “and ordered him to stop all postings on campus.” (ECF No. 21, ¶¶ 21-22). Hailu emailed then-Dean Karen Muir about the meeting, stating that he had “discussed the issue of concern from President's office, with Professor Tom Crawford, and he understands the concern and the CSCC policy regarding the posting of religious and political materials.” (Hailu Dep. Exh., ECF No. 67-1 at 117). After that warning, Crawford met with the Human Resources Department-one of the employees there told him that it was permissible to post materials on outside bulletin boards and on the employees-only floor of the building, but that he should not post anything in the classrooms without permission. (ECF No. 64 at 61-62). Crawford therefore continued posting materials on the outside bulletin boards but, from April 2012 on, stopped posting things in classrooms. (Id. at 65).

         In July 2013, Crawford sent an email to his Engineering 1182 students indicating that he was available to do some tutoring, but that his “three classes sum to 10 contact hours and the limit has been reduced to 11 hours, thanks to ObamaCare.” (ECF No. 64 at 113-18; Def. Exh. 5). A student forwarded that email to Hailu, writing that the missive was “unprofessional.” (Def. Exh. 5). Hailu then told Crawford that, he, too, believed the email was unprofessional and asked Crawford to come to his office to discuss the incident. (Id.). Craword does not recall Hailu's exact words, but indicated that he was told not to repeat the incident and that Crawford should “keep politics out of [the] classroom, just do physics.” (ECF No. 64 at 122).

         Later that year, Crawford and another adjunct instructor asked then-Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs, Karen Muir, about the reduction of hours for adjunct instructors and the new engineering classes taught in the Biological and Physical Sciences Department. (ECF No. 64 at 129). Hailu apparently got wind of this meeting, and subsequently criticized Crawford and his fellow adjunct instructor for being “insubordinate” in speaking to Muir rather than communicating their concerns to his immediate supervisor or to the Department Chair. (Def. Exh. 7). He also wrote a summary of what constituted, in his view, Crawford's infractions:

About a year ago, you sent YouTube videos (political in nature) to your students and the students complained to the President's office regarding the content of the YouTube videos. The President's office, through proper channels contacted me and I have warned you so that this would not happen again; you are only to do your job, i.e. teach physics and engineering to your students - not get into or promote your politics to your students in class. Additionally, employees and students brought to my attention that you were placing political posters and signs across the campus. I also spoke with you and about this and advised you to stop.
Moreover, at the end of Summer (on July 31st) for the Autumn semester you sent your students an email with your syllabus in which you included a statement regarding ObamaCare. Again, the email was forwarded to me from several students indicating that your opinion regarding ObamaCare in a class email was “unprofessional.” I discussed this matter with you and you apologized to me as well as you asked me to send an apology email to the students affected. I explained to you that this was going to be your last warning for this kind of behavior.

(Id.). At that time, Crawford was not formally disciplined.

         The next incident occurred in December 2013. One of Crawford's students approached him and mentioned the idea of recommending Crawford for a full-time position due to his “superior teaching and tutoring.” (ECF No. 21 at ¶ 15). The student prepared a recommendation letter and petition for David Harrison, the President of CSCC (and also a defendant in this case), which outlined the case for promoting Crawford. (Id. at ¶¶ 15-17). The student submitted this petition and recommendation letter to President Harrison and Hailu sometime in November 2013. (Id.).

         Following receipt of the petition and letter, President Harrison met with the student-author. (Id. at ¶ 18). President Harrison then met with Hailu and Lisa Schneider, the Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (parent-college to Crawford's department). (Id. at ¶¶ 3, 19). Together, the three administrators concluded that Crawford “orchestrated” the letter seeking his promotion to a full-time position. (Id. at ¶ 19). Hailu later testified that some students had expressed concerns that if they did not sign the petition, their grades may suffer. (ECF No. 67 at 153). And Crawford testified that Hailu told him: “Do you think this is a positive for you? This is negative. This is not how we hire people. I heard about this coming along. I heard that these students were intimidated into signing this.” (ECF No. 64, 82-83).

         Crawford, for his part, vigorously contests that he had anything to do with orchestrating the letter and that he only became aware of the letter after it was drafted. But Schneider was nevertheless concerned about the unfolding events. She contemporaneously observed that, due to Crawford's pattern of behavior-as well as complaints that Crawford had been biased against international or minority students- “[i]f a full-time position in Engineering were ever to materialize, Thomas Crawford may not be suitable for the position.” (ECF No. 63-1 at 70).

         In June 2014, roughly six months after receipt of the student petition and recommendation letter, CSCC posted an opening for a full-time tenure track position in the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences, with an “Engineering-Physics Emphasis.” (ECF No. 21 at ¶ 29). The posting sought a successful candidate who possessed “[a]n appropriate combination of education, training, course work[, ] and experience, ” and it included minimum and preferred qualifications which Crawford far surpassed. (Id. at ¶ 30).

         Crawford, who holds advanced degrees in Nuclear and Mechanical Engineering, applied for the position. (Id. at ¶¶ 10, 31). Crawford's application included a seventeen-page letter and resume. (Id. at ¶ 31). In his application letter, Crawford mentioned the student petition and recommendation letter from the previous December. (Id.). When he applied for the full-time position, Crawford was seventy-one years old. (Id.).

         CSCC has memorialized its hiring process in two documents: the Columbus State Community College Policy and Procedures Manual and the Columbus State Community College-Columbus State Educators' Association Collective bargain Agreement. (ECF No. 63-1). Pursuant to those procedures, Hailu convened a hiring committee to consider the applications that CSCC received. (ECF No. 21 at ¶ 33). Under the hiring process, committee members independently were to score the objective qualifications of each applicant and then choose the highest-ranking applicants, based on the committee's combined scores, for interviews. (Id.).

         Crawford alleges that at least four typical hiring procedures were not strictly followed in the filling of the full-time position in the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences. First, it was typical practice that the chair of the hiring process-in this case, Hailu-would not have substantive input on the hiring process. (Muir Dep., ECF No. 66 at 22; ECF No. 63 at 69-70). That practice was not followed in this case. (See ECF No. 67 at 250-51). Second, CSCC policy required the hiring manager to “make every attempt” to interview a minimum of six candidates to ensure a diverse pool of potential hires. (ECF No. 66-1 at 2). Here, the search committee agreed to interview no more than five candidates. (ECF No. 67, 272-73). Third, Human Resources typically would have trained the search committee to ask ten specific questions of candidates-questions that avoided discussion of race, religion, national origin, and age. (Id. at 229). But because the same search committee had just filled a position for an Instructor in Astronomy, Hailu and a representative from Human Resources agreed that it was not necessary to repeat the training. (Id.) Finally, under CSCC policy, the search committee was to provide Human Resources with the names of three candidates, in unranked order, so the Department Chair and Dean could conduct their interviews and independently reach a conclusion. (ECF No. 66 at 24). That conclusion would be communicated in a consultative meeting with the Department Chair, the Dean, and the Provost-the ultimate hiring decision rests with the Provost with approval from the President of the CSCC. (ECF No. 66-1 at 2). But the committee only elevated one name for the final interviews. (Schneider Dep., ECF No. 69 at 84)

         Forty-nine applicants applied for the position. In the initial meeting of the search committee, the committee agreed to interview five finalists-Hassan Borteh, Jeevan Baretto, Christian Feldt, Ahmad Saatchi, and James Toney. (ECF No. 67 at 265). Hailu recalled that someone mentioned the possibility of a “courtesy” interview for Crawford; the idea was ultimately rejected. (Id. at 305).

         We have little information about how the committee narrowed the applicants to this list of five finalists. The record does contain, however, the rankings of Kent Fisher, Physics Professor and Lead Physics Instructor at CSCC, and part of the search committee. (ECF No. 71-1, at ¶ 4). In an email to Hailu on July 25, 2014, Fisher ranked Crawford second among all forty-nine applicants and Jeevan Baretto ninth among the forty-nine candidates. (ECF No. 73-6). Before the applicant pool was narrowed to the five finalists, Fisher had advocated “weeding out” candidates that did not have a Ph.D. or M.S. in Engineering. (Id.) And after the five finalists were selected, Fisher wrote Hailu an email observing that “if Borteh and Tony don't have [engineering] degrees, then we can't hire them for the position and should not offer them interviews.” (Id.)

         The only other evidence related to the individual committee members' ranking of the finalist candidates is Hailu's list of his personal selections-Crawford was not among them. (ECF No. 67 at 254). When asked why Crawford was not on his list of finalists, Hailu replied that it was “[b]ecause of [Crawford's] activity. I was frustrated with him. In my opinion he's not the best candidate.” (Id. at 255). He continued: “His behavior, his character, his everything is very ...

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