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Omachonu v. Shields

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

March 5, 2018

FLORENCE E. OMACHONU, Plaintiff,
v.
DENNIS J. SHIELDS, ELIZABETH A. THROOP and ALISON B. BUNTE, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM M. CONLEY DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Defendants Dennis J. Shields, Elizabeth A. Throop, and Alison B. Bunte[1]participated in decisions to deny tenure and terminate the employment of plaintiff Florence E. Omachonu, then a tenure track professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. As an African American woman born in Nigeria, Omachonu claims defendants' actions denied her equal protection rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment (dkt. #27), which will be granted for the reasons set forth below.

         UNDISPUTED FACTS[2]

         A. Background

         Plaintiff Florence E. Omachonu was born and educated in Nigeria, including Evwreni Teachers College, where she earned a diploma in elementary education in 1979. After leaving Nigeria, Omachonu earned a B.A., magna cum laude, in early childhood education at the University of District Columbia in 1985 and a M.Ed. in education administration and supervision at George Washington University in 1989. Between 1994 and 2012, Dr. Omachonu pursued her doctoral studies at Florida A&M University, Widener University and Edgewood College, where she received an Ed.D. in educational leadership.

         Dr. Omachonu began teaching early childhood students in Nigeria. As an assistant professor at Georgia College & State University, Fort Valley State University and Middle Tennessee State University between 1997 and 2006, she taught a number of courses in subjects including secondary education and corrective reading in elementary education.[3]

         In 2007, Dr. Omachonu interviewed for a tenure track faculty position at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville (“UW-Platteville” or “UWP”). This interview included an evaluation by faculty from UWP's School of Education, who observed her teach a class, field questions from students and lead a discussion about “content area literacy.” Having apparently met or exceeded expectations, Dr. Omachonu was hired in mid-December of 2007 as a tenure track professor in the School of Education (“Education” or “SOE”). She began teaching at UWP in the spring of 2008, and her first semester teaching a full course load was in the fall of that year.

         B. Dr. Omachonu's Relationship with Dr. Bunte

         Defendant Alison B. Bunte, a Caucasian woman, was SOE's Director during the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 academic years. She stepped down as Director on June 30, 2010, serving in a different capacity at UW-Platteville during the 2010-2011 school year, and retiring fully from the university on June 30, 2011.

         Before Omachonu began teaching her first semester at UWP in the spring of 2008, Bunte sent Omachonu an email assigning her to serve as the coordinator of the graduate reading program. However, Bunte neglected to inform Dr. Greg Imbur, who was the coordinator at the time and also Caucasian, of that decision. As a result, Imbur only became aware of Omachonu's assignment when he called her on the phone to welcome her and ask whether she had received an assignment from SOE. To avoid any potential friction, Omachonu offered to concede the position to Imbur, but the then-Director of the SOE, Michael Anderson, proposed that Imbur and Omachonu serve as co-coordinators.

         Thereafter, Imbur and Omachonu had a collegial relationship as co-coordinators until Imbur's departure from UW-Platteville in the summer of 2009. At that time, however, rather than continue Omachonu in her position as coordinator of the graduate reading program, Bunte removed Omachonu and assigned herself to the position. Bunte informed Omachonu in an email that she could not be the sole coordinator without first obtaining a “terminal degree.” Bunte further explained that the co-coordinator arrangement was “fine because Greg had the terminal degree.” (Decl. of Anne M. Bensky, Ex. FF (dkt. #34-11).)

         Among other things, the parties dispute whether having a terminal degree was a prerequisite for the coordinator position or only a preferred qualification. Regardless, Omachonu attributes pretext to defendant Bunte's explanation, asserting that she removed Omachonu from the coordinator position in response to her pointing out “deficiencies in the curriculum of the reading program and the absence of Dr. Bunte's own syllabi.” (Decl. of Dr. Florence E. Omachonu (dkt. #44) ¶ 65.) Omachonu further claims that despite stripping her title, Bunte expected her to maintain the same responsibilities she had as a co-coordinator. Also in the summer of 2009, Omachonu raised a concern with Bunte's decision to grant a waiver to one of Bunte's graduate advisees, who did not meet a requirement set forth by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Omachonu claims that Bunte “took umbrage” with Omachonu questioning her decisions in a manner unlike she had with any Caucasian faculty members who had challenged her in the past, but Omachonu provides no specifics about any other times when a Caucasian “challenged” Bunte.[4]

         The parties agree that Bunte adjusted Omachonu's teaching assignments for the 2009-2010 school year, which included assigning her a class comprised of two courses that had been combined. This resulted in Omachonu again “challenging” Bunte's authority as a result of her objection to being assigned the combined course. Specifically, Omachonu told Bunte that there were too many students for her to teach effectively. Bunte responded with a memo explaining her reasons for denying Omachonu's request not to teach that class. Omachonu also complained about the assignment to Mittie Nimocks Den Herder, then UWP's Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Education, who emailed Omachonu explaining that she agreed with Bunte's course assignments. There is no dispute that UW-Platteville was experiencing budget issues, which required SOE to reduce costs for the 2009-2010 school year, but Omachonu asserts that Bunte made no similar change to the course assignments of Caucasian faculty. Again, however, she fails to identify any factual support in the record for her assertion that Bunte made no similar change to “teaching assignment[s] at the last minute, without notice” with respect to “native born Caucasian faculty in the department.” (Pl.'s Opp'n Br. (dkt. #46) at 7.)

         C. Negative Student Evaluations

         On December 21, 2009, Bunte convened a meeting with Omachonu and then Dean Den Herder, as well as Omachonu's union representative and a human resources representative, to discuss Omachonu's negative student evaluations.[5] On December 29, 2009, Omachonu wrote a letter to Bunte responding to concerns raised during the December 21 meeting. In her letter, Omachonu accused Bunte of encouraging students to give her negative evaluations and of “vindictively seek[ing] incriminating information” about her. (Bensky Decl., Ex. AA (dkt. #34-6).) Omachonu believed that this behavior was part of Bunte's continuing “efforts to get even, ” dating back to Omachonu telling Bunte that she “had lowered the integrity of the graduate reading program.” (Id.) Omachonu's letter also expressed her belief that the negative student evaluations were largely because those students were not prepared for her high academic expectations, and not because of any shortcomings in Omachonu's teaching ability.

         Bunte responded with a memo of her own on January 11, 2010, identifying four specific areas of concern raised in Omachonu's student evaluations and listing four suggestions for improving the clarity of her assignments. (Bensky Decl., Ex. DD (dkt. #34-9).) In addition, Bunte informed Omachonu that she was adjusting her course schedule for the spring of 2010 semester, since Bunte felt that “perhaps the number of students was a contributing factor in [Omachonu's] low evaluation scores.” (Id.)

         D. Retention Reviews

         The School Review Board committee (“Review Board” or “SRB”), which consists of Education faculty members, is charged with making salary, retention and tenure recommendations. Once every year, faculty members are expected to submit files to the Review Board demonstrating three things: (1) teaching effectiveness; (2) scholarly activities; and (3) community service. The files also typically include a narrative report prepared by the faculty member, compiled student evaluations, course syllabi, and sample assignments. Board members then use a protocol to evaluate each faculty member in each of three areas of assessment. Afterward, the Review Board meets collectively to score a Teaching Evaluation Report. The Board considers teaching effectiveness the most important of the three criteria. The completed Teaching Evaluation Report is then placed in each faculty member's file, and each faculty member can appeal the Board's evaluation.

         The Board's recommendation as to tenure is made to the College of Liberal Arts and Education's Retention, Salary and Tenure Committee (for purposes of this opinion, referred to as “the Retention & Tenure Committee, ” “Committee” or “R&TC”), which is an elected committee headed ex officio by the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Education. That Committee then makes a tenure recommendation to the chancellor.

         With respect to the 2011-2012 school year, the Review Board recommended that the Committee retain Omachonu, as well as give her a merit increase in salary. On February 19, 2010, however, the Retention & Tenure Committee issued a memorandum indicating its disagreement with the Board's recommendation and noting “no evidence of progress toward the completion of the doctorate” nor “an acceptable level of scholarly activity and professional development beyond the campus community.” (Decl. of Mittie Nimocks Den Herder, Ex. Q (dkt. #31-7).)

         Around the same time, in a memo dated February 24, 2010, Omachonu purported to respond to a letter dated January 26, 2010, the latter apparently written by the Board, or at least certain tenured, Education faculty. In the memo, Omachonu sought to correct “misstatements and factual errors” regarding her progress toward her doctorate, her familiarity with the applicable educational standards and missed SOE commitments. (Bensky Decl., Ex. HH (dkt. #34-13).) Omachonu also purported to address “concerns that were brought to [her] attention” about her student evaluations. (Id.)

         On March 5, 2010, Omachonu also appealed the Retention & Tenure Committee's recommendation against her retention. A week later, on March 12, 2010, the Committee wrote a memo to Omachonu reversing its recommendation, but still directing her to address the “many concerns expressed by the tenured faculty in the School of Education.” (Decl. of Mittie Nimocks Dan Herder, Ex. Q (dkt. #31-7).) Also on March 12, 2010, Dean Den Herder wrote a memo to Duane Merlin Ford, the then Provost and Vice Chancellor, stating that she reluctantly concurred with the Committee's recommendation to retain Omachonu. (Dan Herder Decl., Ex. R (dkt. #31-8).)

         Bunte apparently also intended to write a letter recommending against retaining Omachonu, but she mistakenly waited until after the Board and Committee had already made their recommendations. Bunte expressed her disappointment in missing this opportunity in an email sent to Dean Den Herder on March 18, 2010, stating “I believe that we have given [Omachonu] many [opportunities] to change[, ] and I believe that she will not change.” (Decl. of Timothy E. Hawks, Ex. 20 (dkt. #45-20).)

         E. Overcoming More Negative Student Evaluations

         On June 9, 2010, Bunte wrote Omachonu a memo regarding her student evaluations for the spring 2010 semester. Bunte also copied Dean Den Herder on the memo. In full, it stated:

Attached are your student evaluations for spring 2010. Please read over them. I would like you to notice the parts that I have highlighted. Most of the highlighted areas have to do with the clarity of instruction and confusion with assignments.
These same two areas were of concern [i]n December when you and I met with Kate Kelly and Nancy Turner. We suggested that you explain assignments well in advance of the due date and to make sure the instructions were clear and that the students understood. We also suggested the use of rubrics for each assignment. It appears that these problems still exist.
I hope that you will continue to work on these issues. The Teaching and Learning Center, formerly the TEC, may have some suggestions for you to try.
The overall average of your evaluation scores is a 2.80. The faculty average for faculty this semester was a 4.56. All of averages ranged from 4.41 and 4.92. You need to work to pull up your average scores if ...

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