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Williams v. Florida Atlantic University

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

May 9, 2017




         THIS CAUSE comes before the Court upon Defendant Florida Atlantic University Board of Trustees's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 74] and Defendant Charles L. Brown's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 75]. The Court has carefully reviewed the Motions, the record, argument of counsel, and the applicable law. For the reasons set forth below, the Motions are granted.


         Plaintiff Rosalia Williams (“Plaintiff”), a 63 year-old black woman, [1] brought this action against Defendants Florida Atlantic University Board of Trustees (“FAU”), Charles L. Brown (“Brown”), and Corey King (“King”) (collectively “Defendants”) alleging claims for race, gender, and age discrimination and for retaliation. All of Plaintiff's claims relate to her termination following a heavily publicized student incident at FAU.

         I. Plaintiff's Employment History at FAU

         In 2001, Plaintiff began working at FAU as the Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs for FAU's Broward Campuses. FAU later promoted her to Director of Multicultural Affairs and Pre-College Programs at FAU's Boca Raton Campus. Plaintiff reported to Brown, the Vice President of Student Affairs. In 2009, she was hired as FAU's Vice President of Students Affairs and Dean of Students. A year later, FAU promoted Plaintiff to Associate Dean of Students for FAU's Broward Campuses. Plaintiff replaced David Bynes (“Bynes”), a black man, who had been serving as interim Associate Dean. By 2013, there were three associate deans at FAU, Plaintiff, Terry Mena (“Mena”), a 42 year-old Hispanic man, and A.J. Chase (“Chase”), a 48 year-old white woman.

         II. Code of Conduct

         FAU's Code of Conduct governs the student disciplinary process and sets forth potential conduct violations, including conduct that threatens the health, safety, or welfare of individuals or the university community. Under the Code, the disciplinary process begins when a Dean, Associate Dean or Assistant Dean (“designees”) receives a complaint that a student has violated the Code. Upon receipt of the complaint, the designee has three options: (1) set an investigative conference with the student to gather information; (2) issue a notice of charges and set a student conference; or (3) implement emergency measures. If the designee proceeds under the first option, there is an investigation and potential review either by a hearing officer or the Student Conduct Board. The results of the investigation will determine whether FAU ultimately issues a notice of charges against a student.

         If the complaint presents a situation that poses an imminent threat of harm to the student or others or affects the health, safety, or welfare of the student, the designee can implement emergency measures. Emergency measures include interim suspension, restriction of access to a particular class or campus, or restriction of contact with a particular individual. Although King, the Associate Vice President and Dean of Students, testified that only the Dean could implement emergency measures, the Code's plain language permits any designee to implement emergency measures. In addition, while the term emergency appears to contemplate the need for immediate action, particularly in light of the purported threat to safety, the Code does not have a provision limiting the time for a designee to implement emergency measures. King and Joanna Ellwood (“Ellwood”), the Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Conduct, both testified that, in practice, the designee should implement emergency measures as soon as possible.

         FAU's Department of Student Affairs has draft template letters for each stage of the disciplinary process, which are updated upon the advice of FAU's general counsel's office. King, Brown, and Ellwood all contend that Plaintiff was not permitted to alter the templates without consulting the Dean and the general counsel's office. The Code is silent on this issue and Plaintiff has presented evidence that other deans modified templates without prior approval.

         III. The Incident [2]

         On February 25, 2013, Ryan Rotela (“Rotela”) objected to an exercise in his Multicultural Communications class after Professor Deandre Poole (“Poole”) asked students to write J-E-S-U-S on a piece of paper and decide whether they felt comfortable standing on the paper. Following class, Rotella confronted Poole and allegedly threatened to physically assault him. On February 26, 2013, Plaintiff received the security report regarding the Rotela incident. She then met with Dr. Noemi Marin, who had already met with Rotela, Andrew Cuthbert, a student witness to the event, and with Poole. On Thursday, February 28, 2013, Plaintiff sent Rotela an investigation conference letter.

         Plaintiff first met with Rotela on March 7, 2013. In her deposition, Plaintiff testified that Rotela was agitated and refused to take responsibility for his actions. Rotela denied ever threatening Poole. Plaintiff again communicated with Poole, who requested that Rotela not return to class.

         On March 8, 2013, Plaintiff emailed King asking to discuss a student conduct case, but did not relay the name of the student, details about the incident, or that she was going to issue charges or emergency measures. The same day, before hearing back from King or consulting with the general counsel's office, Plaintiff emailed Rotela a Notice of Charges which included emergency measures barring him from Poole's class and from contact with any student in Poole's class. In drafting the Notice of Charges, Plaintiff modified FAU's template letter. On March 10, 2013, Plaintiff discussed the Rotela incident with King.

         Plaintiff attempted to schedule a hearing for Rotela, but, before the hearing could take place, Rotela hired an attorney and contacted the media. The media coverage of the incident focused on the classroom exercise and characterized Rotela's discipline as punishment for making a religious objection to an offensive assignment. This prompted an angry response from members of the community and a substantial amount of negative national media attention. FAU eventually reached an agreement with Rotela and dropped the charges.

         Brown initially informed Plaintiff that she would be reprimanded for what he believed to be a failure to follow the Code's procedures. Plaintiff indicated that she would oppose any reprimand. Brown never issued a written reprimand. On April 26, 2013, FAU terminated Plaintiff. FAU replaced Plaintiff with William Hortsman, a white man who is approximately 5 years younger than Plaintiff.

         IV. The Other Deans' Conduct

         Plaintiff asserts that Mena and Chase, in their capacity as associate deans, issued charges that included emergency measures.[3] There is no written record of Mena or Chase implementing emergency measures. In addition, Brown, King, and Ellwood have all stated that they were unaware of Mena or Chase ever implementing emergency measures.

         On at least two occasions, Plaintiff's replacement, Hortsman, issued charges more than a week after the reported improper student conduct. Hortsman did not implement emergency measures. It is undisputed that neither Mena, Chase, nor Hortsman ever issued charges relating to a nationally publicized student incident.

         V. Plaintiff's Participation in DROP

         Plaintiff participated in the Florida Deferred Retirement Option Program (“DROP”) retirement system. At the time of her termination, she had three more years until she retired under DROP. Plaintiff claims that during the relevant time period, FAU began downsizing its programs and did not renew the contracts and/or forced the resignation of four other DROP participants, who were replaced by younger employees. Plaintiff does not provide any evidence relating to the statistical significance of the four other DROP participants, including how many DROP participants remained employed at FAU following their forced retirement.

         VI. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed her Second Amended Complaint on September 25, 2015, asserting claims for gender, race, and age discrimination and claims for retaliation [ECF No. 35]. On March 21, 2016, the Court issued an order limiting the time-period for Plaintiff's claims to the “Rotela incident” and dismissing Plaintiff's claims against King and Brown for retaliation and age discrimination. [ECF No. 59]. On June 23, 2016, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed ...

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