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Workman v. University of Akron

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

December 11, 2017




         Before the Court is the motion of defendant University of Akron (“UA”) for summary judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 on the claims of plaintiff Dayna Workman (“Workman”) in this Title IX case. (Doc. No. 44 [“Mot.”].) Workman opposes the motion (Doc. No. 53 [“Opp'n”]), and UA has filed a reply (Doc. No. 54 [“Reply”]). For the reasons that follow, UA's motion is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Many of the background facts of this case are undisputed. Workman enrolled as a mater's student in UA's Marriage and Family Counseling/Therapy Master's Program (“Program”) in the spring of 2012. (Doc. No. 46-1 (Deposition of Dayna Workman [“Workman Dep.”]) at 1789.[1]) The Program generally consists of four components: (1) classroom coursework, (2) pre-practicum field experience, (3) clinical requirements (practicum and internship courses), and (4) passage of the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination (“CPCE”) within three attempts. (See Doc. No. 44-3 (Declaration of Rebecca Boyle [“Boyle Dec.”]) ¶ 9; Doc. No. 44-2 (Declaration of Karin Jordan [“Jordan Dec.”]) ¶ 9.)

         Workman became pregnant in the fall of 2013. She told Jordan[2] and Boyle[3] in February 2014 that she was expecting a child that summer, but would be absent for only one week, and would continue with her plan to take the Program's practicum course in summer 2014. Workman claims that Jordan and Boyle were skeptical that she would only be absent for one week after childbirth, and indicated that if she needed to be absent more than one week, it may take two semesters to complete the hourly requirements of the practicum course. (Workman Dep. 1825-26.) Workman decided to proceed with her practicum in summer 2014 as planned, instead of deferring her practicum until fall 2014.

         According to Workman, Jordan and Boyle believed that a pregnant woman could not succeed in the Program and set about ensuring that outcome. This allegation forms the basis of Workman's Title IX claims. Specifically, Workman alleges that as a consequence of discrimination by Boyle and Jordan, (1) she did not receive sufficient clients to obtain the required number of clinical hours for her practicum course in summer 2014 even though she was absent only one week for childbirth, (2) she was denied an internship assignment, and (3) she failed three attempts to pass the CPCE. (Doc. No. 1 (Complaint [“Compl.”]) ¶¶ 36-41.) When Workman failed her competency examination for the third time in July 2015, she was dismissed from the Program. (Id. ¶ 42.) Workman attributes her dismissal to pregnancy discrimination in violation of Title IX, and she alleges that UA was deliberately indifferent to her discrimination claims. (Id. ¶¶ 45, 63.)

         UA contends that it is entitled to summary judgment on Workman's Title IX claims because it is undisputed that: (1) she did not complete the required number of clinical hours during the summer 2014 practicum for reasons other than pregnancy discrimination; (2) she received and completed a Program internship assignment; and (3) she was dismissed because she failed to satisfy a Program requirement of passing her competency examination in three attempts.


         A. Summary Judgment Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate where “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). A fact is material if its resolution affects the outcome of the lawsuit under the governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. If a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party, then summary judgment is not appropriate. Id.

         The moving party must provide evidence to the court which demonstrates the absence of a genuine dispute as to any material fact. Once the moving party meets this initial burden, the opposing party must come forward with specific evidence showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. It is the nonmoving party's duty to point out specific facts in the record that create a genuine issue of material fact; the trial court does not have a duty to search the record “to establish that it is bereft of a genuine issue of material fact.” Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1479-80 (6th Cir. 1989) (citing Frito-Lay, Inc. v. Willoughby, 863 F.2d 1029, 1034 (D.C. Cir. 1988)); Fulson v. City of Columbus, 801 F.Supp. 1, 4 (S.D. Ohio 1992) (citation omitted).

         The nonmoving party may oppose a summary judgment motion “by any of the kinds of evidentiary material listed in Rule 56(c), except the mere pleadings themselves[.]” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. The Court must view all facts and evidence, and inferences that may be reasonably drawn therefrom, in favor of the non-moving party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S.Ct. 993, 8 L.Ed.2d 176 (1962). General averments or conclusory allegations of an affidavit do not create specific fact disputes for summary judgment purposes. See Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888-89, 110 S.Ct. 3177, 111 L.Ed.2d 695 (1990).

         “Summary judgment requires that a plaintiff present more than a scintilla of evidence to demonstrate each element of a prima facie case.” Garza v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 536 F. App'x. 517, 519 (6th Cir. 2013) (citing Van Gorder v. Grand Trunk W. R.R., 509 F.3d 265, 268 (6th Cir. 2007)). “‘The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [nonmoving party's] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [nonmoving party].'” Street, 886 F.2d at 1477 (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         The district court's review on summary judgment is a threshold inquiry to determine whether there is the need for a trial due to genuine factual issues that must be resolved by a finder of fact because those issues may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. That is, the Court must determine “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 251-52; see also Wexler v. White's Fine Furniture, Inc., 317 F.3d 564, 578 (6th Cir. 2003).

[Summary judgment is required] against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be no genuine issue as to any material fact, since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial. The moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing of an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof.

Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         B. Title IX-discrimination

         Workman alleges pregnancy discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq., (“Title IX”), which provides that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance[.]” 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a). The discrimination prohibited by Title IX includes discrimination related to pregnancy. Federal regulations prohibit a recipient of federal funds from discriminating against any student, or excluding any student from its education programs or activities, “on the basis of such student's pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery therefrom[.]” 34 C.F.R. § 106.40(b)(1).

         Title IX claims by students against a university are analyzed by applying the Title VII standard for proving discriminatory treatment. See Ivan v. Kent State Univ., No. 94-4090, 1996 WL 422496, at *2 (6th Cir. July 26, 1996) (collecting cases); Nelson v. Christian Bros. Univ., 226 F. App'x 448, 454 (6th Cir. 2007) (“Generally, courts have looked to Title VII, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, as an analog for the legal standards in both Title IX discrimination and retaliation claims.”) (collecting cases). Title IX claims can be established by both direct and circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence is “that evidence which, if believed, requires the conclusion that unlawful discrimination was at least a motivating factor in the [defendant's] actions.” Jacklyn v. Schering- Plough Healthcare Prods. Sales Corp., 176 F.3d 921, 926 (6th Cir. 1999) (Title VII) (citations omitted); Gordon v. Traverse City Area Pub. Sch., 182 F.Supp.3d 715, 724-25 (W.D. Mich. 2016) (Title IX retaliation) (citing Jacklyn, supra.)), aff'd, 686 F. App'x 315 (6th Cir. 2017).

         Workman may also establish a Title IX discrimination claim by circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence is evidence which permits an inference of discrimination, [4] and is analyzed utilizing the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973)/Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 67 L.Ed.2d 207 (1981) burden-shifting framework. See Gordon, 182 F.Supp.3d at 725; McConaughy v. Univ. of Cincinnati, No. 1:08-cv-320-HJW, 2011 WL 1459292, at *8 (S.D. Ohio Apr. 15, 2011) (citing, among authority, Ivan, 1996 WL 422496, at *2) (further citation omitted). Under this framework, the burden is first upon plaintiff to establish a prima facie case. If plaintiff meets this burden, the burden shifts to defendant to articulate a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its adverse treatment of plaintiff. Once defendant does so, the burden shifts back to plaintiff to demonstrate that defendant's articulated reason is a pretext for discrimination.

         Workman's opposition to UA's motion focuses entirely on the McDonnell Douglas/Burdine burden-shifting framework for establishing a Title IX claim. Thus, it appears that Workman concedes that she has no direct evidence of pregnancy discrimination, and the Court will limit its analysis accordingly.

         1. Prima facie case

         The parties agree that, to establish a prima facie violation of Title IX, Workman must show that: (1) she was a member of a protected class; (2) she was performing the academic requirements at a level sufficient to meet her educator's legitimate expectations; (3) she suffered adverse treatment; and (4) the educational program continued to instruct and credit other students. (Mot. at 290; Opp'n at 2993 (both citing McConaughy, 2011 WL 1459292, at *8 and Darian v. Univ. of Massachusetts, 890 F.Supp. 77, 91 (D. Mass. 1997) (citing Lipsett v. Univ. of Puerto Rico, 864 F.2d 881, 897 (1st Cir. 1988)).) Another district court in the Sixth Circuit, however, has declined to follow the prima facie framework of Darian, reasoning that the Sixth Circuit applies framework of Cline v. Catholic Diocese of Toledo, 206 F.3d 651 (6th Cir. 2000) to pregnancy discrimination claims under Title VII and, because Title IX claims are analyzed under the same legal framework as Title VII claims, the prima facie analysis of Cline, not Darian, applies to Title IX pregnancy discrimination claims. Varlesi v. Wayne State Univ., 909 F.Supp.2d 827, 856 (E.D. Mich. 2012); see also Jordan v. Henderson, 229 F.3d 1152 (6th Cir. 2000) (Table) (citing Cline framework to establish pretext in Title VII pregnancy discrimination case). A recent Sixth Circuit decision confirms that Cline is the appropriate prima facie framework to apply to Title IX pregnancy discrimination claims. Kubik v. Cent. Mich. Univ. Bd. of Tr., et al., No. 16-2783, 2017 WL 5900644, at * 3 (6th Cir. Nov. 30, 2017) (citing Cline, 206 F.3d at 658).

         While the first three elements of a prima facie case under Cline are the same as the Darian framework, the fourth element is not. Under Cline, the fourth element is the existence of a nexus between the pregnancy and the alleged adverse treatment. Id. (citing Cline, 206 F.3d at 658). The fourth factor under either framework, however, is not dispositive of the Court's prima facie analysis. Thus, even though the parties did not brief Cline as the applicable prima facie framework, the Court's analysis would be the same.

         UA contends on summary judgment that there is no genuine dispute of material fact that Workman cannot establish the second and third factors of a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination under Title IX because she cannot show: (1) that she was performing the academic requirements of the Program; or (2) that she suffered adverse treatment prior to being dismissed from the Program. (Mot. at 291-92).

         Given the undisputed facts in this case as discussed below, including that Workman failed her competency examination three times (passage of which was required by the Program), the Court finds it unlikely that Workman can successfully carry her burden on summary judgment to establish a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination. That said, the requirements for making out a prima facie case of Title VII discrimination are “not onerous, ” but “a burden easily met.” Cline, 206 F.3d at 660 (quotation marks and citations omitted). Thus, the Court will assume for the purpose of this analysis (and in the interest of judicial efficiency), that Workman has satisfied her burden on summary judgment to establish a prima facie case.

         2. Legitimate nondiscriminatory reason

         In the next phase of the McDonnell Douglas/Burdine analysis, the burden shifts to UA to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions. Regarding Workman's allegations of pregnancy discrimination with respect to her Program internship, UA points out that she fully participated in an internship at Catholic Charities. With respect to Workman's contention that she was “denied” an internship at her preferred site, the McKeon Education Group (“McKeon”), UA points out that Workman's internship at McKeon was conditional, not because of Workman's pregnancy, but because McKeon lacked an on-site supervisor. (Mot. at 293.)

         With respect to Workman's claim that she could not successfully complete the summer 2014 practicum because UA deprived her of clients as a consequence of her pregnancy, UA maintains that she was assigned available clients in the same manner as her classmates and consistent with the ethical rules that govern the profession regarding client continuity of care when an absence is anticipated. Moreover, UA points out that Workman successfully completed her practicum in fall 2014, and moved ahead to the internship phase of the Program. (Id. at 293-94.)

         Finally, as to Workman's claim that she was dismissed from the Program in 2015 because of her pregnancy in 2014, UA states that Workman was dismissed because she failed three attempts to pass her comprehensive examination. To the extent Workman claims that she would have passed the oral examination (which followed two failures to pass the written examination) if Boyle and Jordan were not included on the panel, UA points out that ...

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