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Stennis v. Bowie State University

United States District Court, D. Maryland

February 16, 2017




         On May 5, 2016, Kesslyn Brade Stennis (“Brade Stennis”), a former professor at Bowie State University (“Bowie State”), filed a Complaint alleging unlawful retaliation under Title VII, Title IX, and Maryland's Fair Employment Practices Act (“FEPA” or “Title 20”). She alleged that her supervisor, Dr. Andre Stevenson, retaliated against her after she voiced the concerns of certain students that they were being discriminated against on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation, and that these allegedly retaliatory acts negatively impacted her tenure application and professional standing. On October 14, 2016, Bowie State moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. ECF No. 6. A motions hearing was held on January 12, 2017. ECF No. 14. For the reasons discussed below, the motion to dismiss will be granted.


         Between February 2009 and August 2014, Brade Stennis was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Work (“DSW”), within Bowie State's College of Professional Studies. ECF No. 1 ¶ 11. Her immediate supervisor was Dr. Andre Stevenson, chair of the DSW. Id. ¶ 12. In Spring 2013, Brade Stennis relayed to Dr. Stevenson that certain students felt they were being unfairly treated by certain members of the faculty. Id. ¶ 17. At Dr. Stevenson's direction, Brade Stennis spoke with members of the Social Work Club and learned that some students felt that Dr. Stevenson was discriminating against them on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation. Id. ¶¶ 17-18. In Summer 2013, Brade Stennis typed up a report and assessment of Dr. Stevenson in which she described the concerns expressed during the meeting of the Social Work Club, and she forwarded this Assessment to Dr. Stevenson. Id. ¶¶ 20-22.

         After she submitted this Assessment, Dr. Stevenson reacted “extremely negatively.” ECF No. 1 ¶ 22. Brade Stennis began receiving “threatening and intimidating” e-mails from Dr. Stevenson, and was questioned by him and the Dean of the College of Professional Studies, Dr. Jerome Schiele. Id. ¶ 23-24. At this meeting, her “credibility was questioned.” Id. ¶ 24. Brade Stennis then met with Elizabeth Stachura, a human resources officer, about her meeting with Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Schiele, but Ms. Stachura took no action. Id. ¶ 25. On October 11, 2013, Brade Stennis submitted her tenure application. Id. ¶ 26. Dr. Stevenson criticized her application's organization and “erect[ed] barriers to her application” by “raising inaccurate claims about her professionalism and her advisement of students.” Id. ¶¶ 26-30. Brade Stennis then received a “disturbing and disrespectful e-mail” from Dr. Stevenson about her purported mis-advisement of students-an e-mail that allegedly “confirmed Dr. Stevenson's retaliatory animus.” Id. ¶¶ 29-30. From this e-mail, it “appeared that Dr. Stevenson's concerns about [mis]advisement were baseless.” Id. ¶ 30. Brade Stennis then again met with Ms. Stachura to express her concern about the “mounting paper trail” that was accumulating after she relayed the concerns of gay and female students. Id. ¶¶ 29-31. In late Fall 2013, Brade Stennis “learned that her teaching duties and department roles were being reduced by Dr. Stevenson, affecting her professional standing.” Id. ¶ 35. He also “removed departmental duties and committee responsibilities from Plaintiff.” Id.

         On December 9, 2013, the DSW Faculty Review Committee voted not to recommend Brade Stennis for tenure-a decision supported by Dr. Stevenson and Dean Schiele. Id. ¶ 37. Nevertheless, on July 1, 2014, Brade Stennis was informed that she had received tenure. Id. ¶ 38. Subsequent to her receiving tenure, the “hostile and offensive and abusive environment” created by Dr. Stevenson continued until August 15, 2014, when Brade Stennis was “forced to resign her position at BSU, ” which Brade Stennis alleged amounted to a constructive discharge. Id. ¶ 39. Brade Stennis then obtained employment as a professor at Coppin State University, another institution within the University System of Maryland. Id. ¶ 40.

         Brade Stennis filed an Intake Questionnaire with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging unlawful retaliation on March 11, 2014. ECF No. 12 Ex. 1. On March 17, 2014, Brade Stennis' attorney sent a letter to Bowie State advising that Brade Stennis was engaging in EEO protected activities and that he was authorized to file a charge on her behalf. ECF No. 12 Ex. 1.[1] Brade Stennis filed her formal charge of retaliation on August 20, 2014. ECF No. 6 Ex. 2, EEOC Charge No. 531-2014-01210. Bowie State received notice of this charge on September 24, 2014. ECF No. 13 Ex. A.

         On May 5, 2016, Brade Stennis filed a Complaint alleging unlawful retaliation in violation of § 704 of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3 (Count I), unlawful retaliation in violation of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a) (Count II), and unlawful retaliation in violation of the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (“FEPA”), Md. Code Ann. State Gov't. Art. § 20-606(f) (“Title 20”) (Count III). ECF No. 1. On October 14, 2016, Bowie State filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) on the grounds that (1) Counts I and III were procedurally defaulted, (2) Brade Stennis did not adequately allege that she engaged in protected activity with regard to Counts I and III, and (3) she did not adequately allege that she suffered an adverse employment action for all three counts. ECF No. 6.


         The purpose of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) is “to test the sufficiency of a complaint.” Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). The Supreme Court has further articulated the standard applicable to Rule 12(b)(6) motions. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). Rule 8 “requires a ‘showing, ' rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556 n.3. To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must put forth “plausible claim[s] for relief.” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009). While the court “must take all factual allegations as true, ” it is “not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). And “where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘show[n]'-‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Id. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).


         I. Procedural Default

         a. Count I

         Bowie State alleges that Count I must be dismissed because the discrete acts of retaliation alleged in the Complaint occurred more than 300 days before Brade Stennis filed her charge with the EEOC on August 20, 2014. ECF No. 6 at 14 (citing Mezu v. Morgan State Univ., 264 F.Supp.2d 292, 294 (D. Md. 2003), aff'd, 75 Fed. App'x 910 (4th Cir. 2003) (“In Maryland, a deferral state, a Title VII charge of discrimination must be filed with the EEOC within 300 days of the alleged discriminatory conduct.”)). However, as Brade Stennis explains, the pertinent date is March 11, 2014, when she filed her Intake Questionnaire. ECF No. 12 at 19-20. An Intake Questionnaire satisfies the requirements of an EEOC charge when “the EEOC receives from the person making the charge a written statement sufficiently precise to identify the parties, and to describe generally the action or practices complained of.” Scott v. Md. Dep't of Pub. Safety Servs., Civ No. CCB-14-3695, 2015 WL 5836917, at *4 (D. Md. Oct. 2, 2015) (holding that the intake questionnaire submitted to EEOC was sufficient to serve as a charge for purposes of establishing limitations period). The filing must also “be reasonably construed as a request for the agency to take remedial action to protect the employee's rights or ...

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