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Jacobs v. University of Toledo

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

July 27, 2018

D'Naie Jacobs, Plaintiff,
v.
University of Toledo, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          JACK ZOUHARY U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Introduction Plaintiff D'Naie Jacobs brings this action against her former employer, Defendant University of Toledo (UT), under Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. Jacobs claims UT unlawfully discriminated against her based on her sex. UT moves for summary judgment (Doc. 32). The Motion is fully briefed (Docs. 40, 47). Jacobs moves to strike certain evidence which UT filed with its Motion (Doc. 46). That, too, is fully briefed (Docs. 48-49).

         Background

         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted. Jacobs began working for UT in 2007, where she continued to work in a variety of positions until July 2015. In January 2013, she was hired as Interim Dean of YouCollege, a new “portal college” designed to support student success and retention (Doc. 30-1 at 9; Doc. 38-1). In April 2014, she became Dean of YouCollege (Doc. 38-2). While serving in these positions, Jacobs reported to the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs (see Doc. 30-1 at 9-11; Doc. 40-9 at 9). Scott Scarborough held this position when Jacobs was hired as Interim Dean. John Barrett became Interim Provost shortly after she became Dean (Doc. 30-1 at 11).

         During this time period, Jacobs was an at-will employee -- she could be terminated for any lawful reason, or for no reason at all, with sixty days' notice (id. at 11, 16). As Dean, Jacobs was the “chief administrative officer and academic leader” of YouCollege and was responsible for the “successful planning, organizing, policy development, implementation and direction of all aspects of the College” (see Doc. 38-1). She was also responsible for complying with UT policies and procedures (Doc. 38-1; Doc. 38-2).

         Investigation into YouCollege

         Around January 2015, Jovita Thomas-Williams (Vice President of Human Resources) began receiving complaints from YouCollege staff about potential Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) violations, role confusion, and other work environment issues (Doc. 39 at 1; Doc. 39-1). Thomas-Williams and Barrett met with Jacobs to discuss the complaints and to inform her they were launching an investigation into YouCollege (Doc. 30-1 at 23-24; Doc. 39 at 1-2). Hoping the investigation would assist with issues she recognized, Jacobs initially welcomed the inquiry and encouraged her staff to be forthcoming (Doc. 30-1 at 24-26; Doc. 36-1 at 2).

         Thomas-Williams assigned Melissa Studer (then Melissa Auberle) to lead the investigation (Doc. 36 at 1-2; Doc. 39 at 2). At that time, Studer was a Senior Human Resources Compliance Specialist, and she had extensive experience conducting workplace investigations at UT (Doc. 36 at 1). Studer and Thomas-Williams began the investigation by interviewing Jacobs (Doc. 31-1 at 8; Doc. 36 at 2). During the interview, Jacobs discussed her view of what was and was not working in YouCollege (see Doc. 30-1 at 26-30; Doc. 36 at 2).

         Studer then interviewed sixteen other YouCollege staff members as well as Julie Fischer-Kinney (former Associate Dean of YouCollege). With input from Thomas-Williams, Studer drafted ten standard questions to guide the interviews (Doc. 36 at 2). Although Studer began each interview with these questions, she would also ask follow-up questions depending on the information disclosed (Doc. 31-1 at 8). Some YouCollege staff members brought documents with them to their interviews, and others sent Studer additional details via e-mail (Doc. 36 at 2). Many raised concerns about Jacobs, Crystal Taylor (Associate Dean of YouCollege), and two male Success Coaches (see Doc. 31-1 at 9; Doc. 36 at 2-3). Some suggested Jacobs should be terminated (Doc. 31-1 at 13). Studer prepared a “Climate Assessment” summarizing the information shared during the interviews and her findings (Doc. 36 at 2-3). Thomas-Williams reviewed a draft of the Climate Assessment and discussed Studer's findings with her before the Assessment was submitted in March 2015 (Doc. 39 at 2; see also Doc. 38-9).

         Climate Assessment Findings

         The reported purpose of the Climate Assessment was “to solicit feedback from members of the YouCollege team with regard to practices within the workplace . . . that influenced success in achieving the mission of YouCollege as well as behavior contributing to YouCollege team members feeling valued and evidence of an environment of fair and respectful treatment” (Doc. 38-9 at 2). It provided insights into three categories: organization, leadership oversight and support, and team dynamics.

         The Assessment reported “several organizational issues impeding the success of YouCollege, ” including that “[s]taff is unclear of the roles and responsibilities of various YouCollege positions, ” “[t]here does not seem to be a strategic plan or vision for YouCollege, ” and “the staff does not feel that they can speak honestly and candidly around management” (id. at 2-3). Further, “[s]taff members repeatedly stated that management does not follow the department's procedures, ” and “[a] No. of staff members indicated that the budget is mismanaged” (id. at 3).

         As for leadership oversight and support, “a No. of staff members commented that they had not been properly onboarded when they began their positions at YouCollege” (id. at 4). This left them “unable to answer questions from staff and students” and without “the proper resources to complete projects” (id.). Other staff members reported that two male Success Coaches “routinely received preferential treatment from management” (id.).

         The Assessment discussed “a No. of conflicts” between Jacobs and the Success Coaches, Jacobs and Taylor, and Jacobs and other current and former YouCollege staff members (id. at 7-9). It reported that “Jacobs puts the Success Coaches in the middle of interpersonal issues between herself and Fischer-Kinney, ” and that she “does not model the behavior or follow the same rules she sets for the Success Coaches” (id. at 7). The Assessment also reported “numerous conflicts between Jacobs and Taylor (many of which have been aired publicly)” -- “[e]very staff member interviewed stated that the tension between Jacobs and Taylor [was] palpable” (id. at 9). Further, YouCollege staff disclosed that Jacobs demonstrated “a No. of incidents of unprofessional behavior, ” including making “several discriminatory remarks” about students and potential job candidates (id. at 9-10).

         The Assessment also found Jacobs violated a variety of UT policies and procedures, including: (1) UT's Confidentiality of Student Records policy and FERPA by sending probationary students letters “meant for other probationary students” and by “ask[ing] staff members to meet with probationary students prior to having received FERPA training, ” contrary to “standard practice” (id. at 6, 13); (2) UT's Access Control policy by “frequently g[iving] her [UT Account Domain] and password information to front desk students to work on projects on her behalf” (id.); (3) UT's Purchasing Card policy by “requir[ing] a front desk student to perform several tasks using her P-card” (id.); (4) UT's Sexual Harassment and Other Forms of Harassment policy by making discriminatory remarks (id. at 9-10, 13); and (5) UT's Standards of Conduct policy by making other inappropriate comments (id.).

         The Assessment concluded that “[t]he current YouCollege leadership is ineffective and is known to leverage bullying and fear tactics when interfacing with staff and students. Equally concerning is the fact that assessment interviews of YouCollege leadership and staff have highlighted that there is little or no respect between management and the staff” (id. at 13). Studer found that the work environment issues “contributed to retention challenges” and also “damaged working relationships with other UT colleges and departments” (id.). She recommended “[d]isciplinary action” for Jacobs and Taylor for their UT policy violations, and “strongly recommended” that the two male Success Coaches be “held accountable for their actions and unsatisfactory performance” (id.). She further recommended that a “clear” organization chart and plan be developed and communicated to YouCollege staff (id. at 14). Finally, she encouraged “a comprehensive compensation analysis for Success Coaches” to be completed “as soon as possible to ensure market competitiveness and proper internal equity for similar positions across” UT (id.).

         Jacobs does not dispute that YouCollege staff members complained to HR, or that staff members disclosed to Studer the issues identified in the Climate Assessment. In fact, she testified during her deposition that “[HR] reported what they heard” and that YouCollege staff “provided their account” of what was happening (Doc. 30-1 at 52-53). But she contends HR “received one-sided information, ” and Studer “did not report on the complete picture” because the Climate Assessment excluded information Jacobs disclosed during her interview and provided to Nagi Naganathan (Interim President of UT) before the investigation (id. at 35, 51-53; Doc. 40 at 3-4). Jacobs also criticizes the Assessment for not being “an actual presentation of an assessment of the [C]ollege” like Barrett and Thomas-Williams “insinuated it would be, ” but rather a report that “reveals ‘dirt' on [her] in a conclusory fashion with little support” (Doc. 40 at 3).

         Response to the Climate Assessment and Pre-Disciplinary Hearing

         After the Climate Assessment was submitted, Thomas-Williams discussed the results with Barrett (Doc. 39 at 2). They agreed to place Jacobs and Taylor on paid administrative leave pending pre-disciplinary hearings (id.). On March 12, 2015, Barrett and Thomas-Williams reviewed the results of the Climate Assessment with Jacobs, and she was placed on administrative leave effective immediately (Doc. 30-1 at 32, 35-36).

         One week later, Jacobs, Taylor, and the two male Success Coaches were provided a formal pre-disciplinary hearing before Hearing Officer Megan Rayfield (Doc. 36 at 3; Doc. 39 at 2). At Jacobs' hearing, Studer presented the findings and conclusions of the Climate Assessment (Doc. 36 at 3); Jacobs responded with information she believed the Assessment missed or misreported (Doc. 30-1 at 37-39; see also Docs. 38-10, 38-11). On April 9, 2015, Rayfield submitted a Report confirming Jacobs violated several UT policies and procedures, and recommending she “be terminated effective immediately” (Doc. 38-12 at 21-22). Rayfield also recommended Taylor and the two male Success Coaches be terminated effective immediately (Docs. 36-6, 36-7, 36-8).

         Termination

         Rather than terminate the four employees immediately, Thomas-Williams and Barrett decided to give them ninety days' notice (Doc. 36 at 3; Doc. 39 at 2). Jacobs was given notice on April 15, 2015. At her attorney's request, the notice was amended to indicate she was being terminated without cause (see Docs. 38-14, 38-15). Jacobs then requested a “name clearing hearing” (Doc. 39 at 3; see also Doc. 30-1 at 44). UT agreed to provide a public forum, but Jacobs declined to go forward with the hearing (Doc. 30-1 at 44; Doc. 39 at 3). Her employment with UT terminated on July 14, 2015. Fischer-Kinney became Interim Dean of YouCollege (see Doc. 39 at 2).

         Terence Romer -- Non-Protected Employee Allegedly Treated More Favorably

         Around this same time, UT also investigated UT Registrar Terence Romer. UT decided to investigate Romer after receiving anonymous complaints in March 2015 about “a No. of instances of unprofessional and inappropriate behavior over the past approximately one-year period” (Doc. 43 at 3; see also Doc. 36 at 3-4). Because some of the complaints raised possible Title IX violations, UT brought in outside counsel, Cheryl Wolff, to participate in the investigation with ...


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