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E-Alert Case Updates

The United States District Court for the District of Maryland dismisses professorís complaint alleging unlawful retaliation, finding that she failed to show that her actions were a protected activity and that an adverse employment action was taken against her.

Kesslyn Brade Stennis v. Bowie State University
No. RWT 16-cv-1362 (February 16, 2017) United States District Court for the District of Maryland

by Julia L. Houp, Law Clerk
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www2.mdd.uscourts.gov/Opinions/Opinions/Stennis_v_BowieStateUniversity_
0217_MemoOpinionandOrder.pdf

Kesslyn Brade Stennis was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Work (“DSW”) at Bowie State University between February 2009 and August 2014. In Spring 2013, Brade Stennis communicated to Dr. Stevenson, her immediate supervisor, that certain students in the DSW program felt they were being discriminated against on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation (by Dr. Stevenson). In Summer 2013, Brade Stennis typed up an assessment of Dr. Stevenson, in which she explained the concerns expressed by the students, and she forwarded this assessment to Dr. Stevenson.

After submitting the assessment, Dr. Stevenson reacted “extremely negatively” toward Brade Stennis, and she began receiving “threatening and intimidating” emails from Dr. Stevenson. During a meeting, Brade Stennis’ credibility was questioned by Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Jerome Schiele, the Dean of the College of Professional Studies. Following the meeting, Brade Stennis met with Elizabeth Stachura, a human resources officer, but Ms. Stachura took no action. On October 11, 2013, Brade Stennis submitted her application for tenure, where Dr. Stevenson criticized her application, particularly for “raising inaccurate claims about her professionalism and her advisement of students.” Brade Stennis then received a “disturbing and disrespectful e-mail” from Dr. Stevenson about the mis-advisement of students, allegedly confirming Dr. Stevenson’s “retaliatory animus.” In late Fall 2013, Dr. Stevenson reduced Brade Stennis’ teaching duties and department roles.

On December 9, 2013, the DSW Faculty Review Committee voted not to recommend Brade Stennis for tenure, but nevertheless, she was informed that she received tenure on July 1, 2014. Following her tenure, Dr. Stevenson continued to create a “hostile and offensive and abusive environment” until August 15, 2013, when Brade Stennis was “forced to resign her position at BSU.” Brade Stennis then obtained employment as a professor at Coppin State University.

On March 11, 2014, Brade Stennis filed an Intake Questionnaire with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging unlawful retaliation. Brade Stennis filed her formal charge of retaliation on August 20, 2014. On May 5, 2016, Brade Stennis filed a Complaint alleging unlawful retaliation in violation of Title VII (Count I), unlawful retaliation in violation of Title IX (Count II), and unlawful retaliation in violation of the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (“Title 20”) (Count III). Bowie State filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).

In order to state a prima facie case of retaliation under Title VII, Title IX, or Title 20, an employee must allege and prove that “(1) he engaged in a protected activity; (2) the employer took an adverse employment action against him; and (3) a causal connection existed between the protected activity and the asserted adverse action.” Adams v. Giant Food, Inc., 225 F. Supp. 2d 600, 605 (D. Md. 2002). Bowie State moved to dismiss Counts I and III on the grounds that Brade Stennis’ retaliation claims do not amount to protected activities under Title VII or Title 20. Protected activities “fall into two distinct categories: participation or opposition.” Laughlin v. Metro. Washington Airports Auth., 149 F.3d 253, 259 (4th Cir. 1998). Participation activities include: “(1) making a charge; (2) testifying; (3) assisting; or (4) participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under Title VII.” Id.

The United States District Court for the District of Maryland held that Brade Stennis’ Fall 2013 meetings with Ms. Stachura do not fall under the scope of protected activity under the participation clause. There had been no formal or informal initiation of an EEOC charge, nor was there any contact with an EEOC counselor until August 20, 2014, five days after she resigned. By contrast, Brade Stennis’ filing of the Intake Questionnaire on March 11, 2014 was protected activity. However, in her Complaint, Brade Stennis did not allege that Bowie State received notice of the filing prior to any of the alleged adverse employment actions. Therefore, the court found that Brade Stennis did not allege the causation element necessary for an unlawful retaliation claim based on participation in an EEOC proceeding or investigation.

Additionally, the court found that Brade Stennis failed to show that her activity was covered under the opposition clause. Opposition activity includes “utilizing informal grievance procedures as well as staging informal protests and voicing one’s opinions in order to bring attention to an employer’s discriminatory activities.” Laughlin, 149 F.3d at 259. Here, the activity that Brade Stennis opposed was alleged discrimination against homosexual and female students by Dr. Stevenson and other Bowie State faculty members. Brade Stennis did not oppose a perceived unlawful employment practice. Title VII and Title 20 protect against unlawful employment practices; therefore it was not reasonable to believe that the perceived discrimination against students—who are clearly not employees—violated these statutes. The court ruled that Brade Stennis’ written assessment and meetings with Ms. Stachura cannot be considered oppositional activity.

The court also found that Brade Stennis failed to allege that she suffered an adverse employment action in Counts I, II, and III. In order to be considered “adverse,” the employment action must be one that a “reasonable employment would have found . . . materially adverse.” Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 68 (2006). Not only did Brade Stennis ultimately receive tenure, but when she left her job at Bowie State, she remained in high enough professional standing to receive another teaching position at Coppin State University. The court found that the vague references to threatening and intimidating meetings and emails do not sufficiently allege that an adverse employment action was taken against Brade Stennis, such that a reasonable employee would be dissuaded from filing a charge of discrimination. For these reasons, the court granted Bowie State’s Motion to Dismiss.