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Burton v. Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

June 22, 2016


          OPINION & ORDER

          JAMES D. PETERSON District Judge

         Plaintiff Sabina Burton brought this suit to challenge what she perceived to be discrimination and retaliation from colleagues and administrators at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville (UWP), where Burton is a tenured professor. Eight months into the case, Burton fired her counsel. Dkt. 12. She found new counsel, who vigorously litigated this case through discovery and dispositive motions.

         I granted defendants' motion for summary judgment after concluding that Burton would not be able to prove critical elements of her claims at trial. Dkt. 90. In the wake of that ruling, Burton insisted on a course of action that her counsel would not follow. Dkt. 96, ¶ 2. I granted counsel's motion to withdraw. Dkt. 97.

         Burton has now filed a pro se motion for reconsideration of my summary judgment decision. Dkt. 99. She contends that her former counsel did not allow her to proofread or edit the brief in opposition to defendants' motion for summary judgment, and that, as a result, counsel failed to dispute facts that Burton instructed them to dispute with evidence that she provided. Dkt. 100, ¶ 2. Burton has assembled this evidence and filed corrections and updates to several documents that her former counsel submitted in opposition to summary judgment. See Dkt. 98; Dkt. 100; Dkt. 101; Dkt. 102. Through these filings, Burton purports to demonstrate genuine disputes of material fact that require a trial.

         After reviewing Burton's submissions, I conclude that she is not entitled to relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e). I will deny her motion for reconsideration.


         I recounted the material facts of the case in my opinion on defendants' motion for summary judgment. Dkt. 90. Although Burton takes issue with some of the finer points, the basic facts have not changed. I will summarize those facts here, and I will discuss Burton's recently submitted materials in the analysis section of this opinion.

         Burton began working in the criminal justice department at UWP in 2009, and she was promoted to associate professor in 2012. She later received tenure, effective for the 2013-14 academic year. The defendants in this case include the Board of Regents, Thomas Caywood (the former chair of Burton's department), Michael Dalecki (who replaced Caywood as chair of the department), and Elizabeth Throop (the dean of the college that included Burton's department).

         The first of two critical events in this case occurred in October 2012. One of Burton's colleagues upset a student during a lecture on breach experiments. The student sought out Burton to talk about the incident, and Burton emailed Throop to alert her that the student had been harassed. In the following months, Burton experienced what she perceived to be unwarranted public criticism for the way that she had handled the student's complaint. According to Burton, Caywood was upset that she had taken the issue to the dean instead of him. Caywood became bitter toward Burton and was less than collegial on several occasions.

         At the time that the student incident occurred, Burton was developing a new cybersecurity curriculum. In the course of developing the curriculum, Burton secured a grant from AT&T. But Throop and Caywood took issue with the press release that Burton had approved to announce the donation. In their opinion, the press release incorrectly reported the status of the new curriculum as more developed than it really was. Despite Throop and Caywood's concerns, AT&T was able to correct the press release in time to present Burton with a check at a public ceremony in January 2013. About the same time, Throop and Caywood also identified other issues with how Burton was portraying the status of the curriculum to the public. Burton contends that Throop and Caywood's criticisms and their sudden drop in support were in retaliation for Burton assisting the student.

         The second critical event in this case occurred in August 2013, when Burton filed a charge of discrimination with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development-Equal Rights Division (ERD). Burton charged that: (1) Caywood had discriminated against her because she was a woman and retaliated against her for reporting the student harassment; (2) Throop and the human resources director had discriminated against her; (3) Throop had defamed her; and (4) the university had been deliberately indifferent to her grievances.

         After Burton filed her charge with the ERD, she continued to experience what she perceived to be hostile treatment by her colleagues and supervisors. Dalecki-who had replaced Caywood as department chair by that point-repeatedly encouraged her to drop the charge, and he expressed disappointment or told Burton to "get over it" each time that she refused to do so. Dalecki also implied that Burton was hurting her future opportunities to pursue administrative positions at UWP by continuing with the charge and later lawsuit. Burton and Dalecki had several disagreements throughout the 2013-14 academic year. The disagreements concerned committee appointments, personnel changes, issues with graduate students, and department management. Burton contends that Dalecki's actions were in retaliation for the ERD charge and this lawsuit.

         Burton's relationship with Throop deteriorated as well. In October 2014, Throop wrote Burton a letter of direction, identifying seven events that Throop described as showing "a consistent pattern of unprofessional and inappropriate behavior." Dkt. 37-15, at 5. Burton responded to the letter by disagreeing with Throop's summary of the relevant facts and by flatly refusing to accept any of Throop's directions. Given Burton's refusal to cooperate, Throop filed a complaint with the chancellor on January 5, 2015, asking him to write Burton a formal letter of reprimand that would be placed in her personnel file.

         Burton pursued several grievances to address her concerns with UWP administrators. When those efforts proved unsuccessful, Burton filed suit in this court. I granted defendants' ...

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