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McCrea v. Johns Hopkins Universities

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 24, 2016



          James K. Bredar United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Nicole Rena McCrea, a student in the Johns Hopkins University Engineering for Professionals/Applied Biomedical Engineering Program (“the Program”), initiated this case by filing a pro se Complaint against The Johns Hopkins University (“JHU”)[1] as well as against Dr. Dexter Smith (“Smith”) and Dr. Eileen Haase (“Haase”), who are the Dean and Chair of the Program, respectively. (Complaint, ECF No. 1.) Plaintiff alleges that the Defendants discriminated against her based on her race, gender, and/or disability, and retaliated against her for her complaints, all in violation of seven different Federal statutes. (Pl.'s More Definite Statement, ECF No. 17.) Pending before the Court is Defendants' joint motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 68), which has been fully briefed (ECF Nos. 73, 77), and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016.) For the reasons detailed below, the Court will grant the motion in its entirety for all Defendants.[2]

         I. Standard for Summary Judgment

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (citing predecessor to current Rule 56(a)). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the absence of any genuine dispute of material fact. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). If sufficient evidence exists for a reasonable jury to render a verdict in favor of the party opposing the motion, then a genuine dispute of material fact is presented and summary judgment should be denied. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). However, the “mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [opposing party's] position” is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 252. The facts themselves, and the inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts, must be viewed in the light most favorable to the opposing party, Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Iko v. Shreve, 535 F.3d 225, 230 (4th Cir. 2008), who may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading but instead must, by affidavit or other evidentiary showing, set out specific facts showing a genuine dispute for trial, Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Supporting and opposing affidavits are to be made on personal knowledge, contain such facts as would be admissible in evidence, and show affirmatively the competence of the affiant to testify to the matters stated in the affidavit. Id.

         II. Factual Background[3]

         Plaintiff, an African American woman, was conditionally admitted to the Program in January of 2010. (McCrea Dep. 30:16-20, 150:18, ECF No. 68-2.) She has many allegations.

         First, she alleges mishandling of her application and enrollment files. (Id. at 75:15 -76:19.)

         Once enrolled, in the spring of 2011, Plaintiff's instructor gave her a failing grade in his Medical Sensors and Devices class. (Schiller Decl. ¶ 3, ECF No. 68-5.) He later revised this grade on account of Plaintiff's submission of work that had been missing. (McCrea Dep. Ex. 13.) Plaintiff ascribes a delay in the posting of this correction to Haase's failure, as Program Chair, to implement the change the instructor requested. (Complaint ¶ 4.)

         In the fall of 2011, Plaintiff received a failing grade in Physiology I. (McCrea Dep. 110:21 - 111:4.) While she concedes that she performed poorly on the first exam in the class, Plaintiff believes that she should have received an “A” on the second exam and, therefore, a “B” overall in the course. (Id. at 111:9-10, 114:20 - 115:9.)

         In the spring of 2012, Plaintiff enrolled in Haase's Physiology II class, and believes that she confronted a different test from that administered to her classmates. (Id. at 122:1 - 123:4.) She failed that test and then changed her enrollment status in the class to “audit.” (Id. at 127:21 - 128:4, 130:11-12.)

         In May of 2012, Plaintiff was assaulted and subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (Id. at 137:1-2, 150:21-22, Ex. 2.)

         In the fall of 2013, Plaintiff experienced repeated interruptions to her ability to access necessary academic content through the school's Blackboard web-based learning system. (Id. at 137:13 - 138:7.) She ultimately decided to drop one course and to change her enrollment in another to audit status. (Id. at 42:7-22.) Her access was eventually restored, but a technician informed Plaintiff that the restrictions were accidentally imposed by someone with administrative access. (Id. at 141:4 - 142:7) Haase was listed as an instructor in at least one of the classes in which Plaintiff was having such difficulties. (Id. at 142:6-7; Haase Decl. ¶ 8, ECF No. 68-3.)

         Also in the fall of 2013, Plaintiff failed to complete all of her assignments in her Biomaterials class, ascribing that failure to “things going on with [her, ] personally.” (Id. at 165:13-16, 167:11-18) The instructor, Dr. Potember, gave her an “incomplete.” (Id. at 174:4- 9.) When Douglas Bulkley, a JHU administrator informed students that they had until February 28, 2014, to convert any grades of “incomplete” from the prior semester into letter grades, Plaintiff began to submit work to Potember. (Id. at ¶ 174:18-22, 178:18-21, Exs. 17, 18.) However, Potember then informed Plaintiff not to complete the missing work and that, after consulting with Haase, he decided to give her a failing grade in the course. (Id. at Ex. 18.) Plaintiff appealed this grade through JHU's administrative channels, but her appeal was ultimately denied. (Id. at Exs. 1, 17, 18.)

         Throughout the spring of 2014, Plaintiff was in contact with JHU's Office of Institutional Equity (“OIE”), first seeking to register her PTSD diagnosis with the university, in the hope that she would be able to obtain an accommodation allowing her to submit her work to Potember for a grade. (Id. at 215:6 - 216:6, 221:8-18.) Ultimately, Plaintiff filed a complaint through the OIE, alleging discrimination by her professors. (Id. at Ex. 2.) The OIE informed Plaintiff that it did not find an actionable allegation of discrimination. (Id. at Ex. 3.)

         In June of 2014, Plaintiff received a letter from JHU informing her that she was dismissed from the Program, but in March of 2015, Plaintiff received another letter reinstating her to the Program on a probationary basis and attributing her dismissal to an anomaly in the university's recordkeeping. (Id. at 43:10-12, 54:8-15, Exs. 1, 8.)

         In November of 2014, Plaintiff initiated a complaint through the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”). (Id. at Ex. 5.) The next month, OCR partially dismissed her allegations. (Pl.'s More Definite Statement Attach. O, ECF No. 17-1.) Plaintiff later terminated the remainder of her complaint in favor of pursuing litigation, but OCR nonetheless concluded its investigation in May of 2015, finding in favor of JHU. (Id. at R, CC.)

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff's contentions distill to claims that the Defendants unlawfully discriminated against her in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VI”); Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”); Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Rehabilitation Act”); Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); and 42 U.S.C. Sections 1981, 1983, and 1985. (Pl.'s More Definite Statement.) If Plaintiff alleges more than this, then her claims fail by reason of being insufficiently pled.[4]

         Not all of these statutes apply to all of the Defendants in this case, and some factual allegations arguably lie beyond the applicable statutes of limitations, but in any event Plaintiff has failed to establish prima facie cases for failure to accommodate her disability or of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or disability. Even if she might state a narrow prima facie case for retaliation, Defendants successfully present a nondiscriminatory, non-retaliatory basis for their actions, and Plaintiff utterly fails to demonstrate pretext. Accordingly, taking the evidence at this stage in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, there are no genuine issues of material fact, she does not meet her burdens, and the Court therefore will grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         A. Plaintiff's Request for Further Discovery

         As a preliminary matter, Plaintiff asserts that she is unable at this time to present certain triable facts in order to defeat summary judgment. (Pl.'s Response in Opp'n 7, ECF No. 73.) However, because Plaintiff's argument fails to satisfactorily explain what further discovery she requires, why she has been as yet unable to obtain the information she seeks, or how that information would help her to defeat summary judgment, the Court will not delay in resolving Defendants' motion.

         If a party opposing summary judgment provides an affidavit or declaration showing that, “for specified reasons, it cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition, the court may: (1) defer considering the motion or deny it; (2) allow time to obtain affidavits or declarations or to take discovery; or (3) issue any other appropriate order.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d). A district court “must refuse summary judgment where the nonmoving party has not had the opportunity to discover information that is essential to [its] opposition.” Greater Balt. Ctr. for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. v. Mayor & City Council of Balt., 721 F.3d 264, 280 (4th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, the nonmoving party requesting further discovery pursuant to Rule 56(d) “may not simply assert in its brief that discovery was necessary and thereby overturn summary judgment when it failed to comply with the requirement . . . to set out reasons for the need for discovery in an affidavit.” Nguyen v. CNA Corp., 44 F.3d 234, 242 (4th Cir. 1995). Furthermore, a court need not afford a party more time for discovery when that party has failed to make use of the opportunity it has already had for discovery. See Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, Inc. v. Alpha of Virginia, Inc., 43 F.3d 922, 928-29 (4th Cir. 1995).

         Plaintiff indicates that she was “unable to effect reasonable discovery, ” and she enumerates twenty-nine facts that she disputes, that she contends are material, and on which she claims further discovery is necessary. (Pl.'s Response in Opp'n 7, 13-21.) However, Plaintiff does not direct the Court's attention to any affidavit or declaration explaining why she cannot support her rebuttal of Defendants' position at this time with respect to the stated facts, or what discovery devices she would employ (and on which parties) to obtain the information she seeks. Perhaps most significant given the present stage in the litigation, Plaintiff does not explain why she has apparently not sought discovery of this information up to this point. The Court initially set a discovery deadline in this case for May 31, 2016 (Scheduling Order, ECF No. 19), and later extended this deadline, on Plaintiff's request, to July 25, 2016 (Am. Scheduling Order, ECF No. 22). As of July 25, Plaintiff indicated that discovery was incomplete only in that she was still in the process of requesting documents from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and still searching her own files. (Pl.'s Status Report 2, ECF No. 57.) Plaintiff does not indicate what reason she has to believe either source would provide information relevant to any of the twenty-nine facts she contests. ...

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