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Shanker v. University of Florida Board of Trustees

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Gainesville Division

May 22, 2019

SAVITA SHANKER, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA BOARD OF TRUSTEES, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          GARY R. JONES UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is ECF No. 12, Defendant University of Florida Board of Trustees' (BOT) Motion to Dismiss, to which Plaintiff has filed a response in opposition. ECF No. 13. For the reasons discussed below, it is respectfully RECOMMENDED that Defendant's Motion to Dismiss be GRANTED.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, initiated this lawsuit by filing a complaint purporting to allege employment discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. ECF No. 1. The facts as alleged in the Complaint are as follows. Plaintiff Savita Shanker is an Asian American female of Indian national origin. She was employed by the University of Florida (UF) as a scientist for twenty-two years before being terminated. Id. at 12. She joined UF's Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research (ICBR) in 1994. Id. The ICBR is a service lab that serves the scientific needs of UF's College of Medicine and Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, as well as scientists from other universities. Id.

         Plaintiff is an expert in DNA sequencing, specifically “Sanger” sequencing and “NextGen” sequencing. Id. at 13. From 2011 through the date of her resignation on February 28, 2017, Plaintiff was employed as an Associate Scientist and Director of the “Sanger Sequencing Core Laboratory” in the ICBR. Id.

         In 2006, Dr. Robert Ferl was appointed as director of ICBR. Id. Plaintiff was promoted to Associate Scientist in 2011 during Dr. Ferl's tenure as director. However, beginning in June 2013, Dr. Ferl began engaging in discriminatory and harassing behavior toward Plaintiff, which ultimately culminated in her termination. Id. at 13-14.

         On June 11, 2013, Dr. Ferl called Plaintiff into his office to discuss a complaint made by Dr. Eric Triplett, Professor and Chair of Microbiology and Cell Science. Id. at 14. Three of Plaintiff's male colleagues were also present at the meeting, Plaintiff being the only female. Id. Dr. Ferl relayed to Plaintiff Dr. Triplett's complaint that it was taking too long for the ICBR to copy certain data to an external hard drive. Id.

         Plaintiff explained to Dr. Ferl that she had spoken with the individual from the Cyberinfrastructure department who was responsible for data copying, but he did not do the copying work as promised. Id. In response, Dr. Ferl became enraged and blamed Plaintiff because she was managing Dr. Triplett's project. Id. Dr. Ferl then projected e-mails from Plaintiff on a screen and ridiculed the “syntax” of her email correspondence, which made Plaintiff feel humiliated and embarrassed. Id.

         Dr. Ferl then yelled at Plaintiff, “There are two strikes against you and one more strike and you will be out of this job.” Id. Dr. Ferl's anger was “uncontrollable” and he used an expletive to describe Dr. Triplett. Id. Dr. Ferl's behavior in ridiculing and threatening Plaintiff in front of male colleagues made Plaintiff feel uncomfortable, and she believes Dr. Ferl singled her out in front of her male colleagues on account of her race and gender. Id. Plaintiff did not witness Dr. Ferl treat her male counterparts with similar disregard. Id.

         The emotional distress Plaintiff experienced following the incident with Dr. Ferl resulted in a panic attack for which Plaintiff sought medical treatment. Id. Plaintiff was also forced to cancel a trip to a conference scheduled for the day following the incident. Id. When Plaintiff later reached out to Dr. Triplett to ask him how she could improve her services, Dr. Triplett told Plaintiff he did not believe the delays in data processing were her fault, and he was “very happy” with her work. Id.

         Following the incident on June 11, 2013, Dr. Ferl utilized various harassing tactics to force Plaintiff to resign. Id. at 14-15. Specifically, Dr. Ferl restricted Plaintiff's scientific activities to Sanger sequencing and reduced her role and responsibilities in Next-Gen sequencing, even though she had been heavily involved in the implementation and operation of Next-Gen sequencing in the past. Id. at 15. It is more professionally appealing for a scientist at the ICBR to work on Next-Gen sequencing rather than Sanger Sequencing exclusively because Sanger sequencing is transitioning to the commercial sector, while Next-Gen sequencing is an upcoming technology for campus-based labs. Id.

         Dr. Ferl also dramatically reduced the size of Plaintiff's staff to perform the Sanger sequencing services, despite her repeated requests for additional personnel. Id. He sent Plaintiff to communications seminars to improve her communication skills, collected statements “against” her from terminated employees, and gave her poor annual evaluations, despite not giving her poor evaluation reports at any point during her prior nineteen years of service. Id. Dr. Ferl also emailed Plaintiff on May 3, 2016, admonishing her for leaving a meeting early to use the restroom and conversing while another employee was speaking. Id.

         On October 4, 2016, Plaintiff received a Notice of Non-Renewal from Dr. Ferl, notifying her that her employment would end the following year on October 3, 2017. Id. at 12. The notice also stated that Plaintiff's services will not be needed because the ICBR is closing the Sanger sequencing operations at UF. Id.

         According to Plaintiff, the closing of the Sanger sequencing operations is not a justified reason for non-renewal of Plaintiff's contract because she is an expert in Next-Gen sequencing and is capable of providing other services offered by the ICBR. Id. Rather, discontinuation of Sanger sequencing operations at the ICBR is a pretext for racial and gender discrimination in terminating her. Id. at 13. Plaintiff resigned from her position at UF on February 28, 2017. ECF No. 13. She filed a charge of discrimination against Defendant with the EEOC on December 14, 2017[1], asserting discrimination based on her race, gender, ...


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