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Stennis v. Bowie State University

United States District Court, D. Maryland

April 5, 2019

KESSLYN BRADE STENNIS, Plaintiff,
v.
BOWIE STATE UNIVERSITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PAULA XINIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court and ready for resolution is Defendant Bowie State University's (“BSU” or the “University”) Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 37. The matter is fully briefed, and a hearing was held on February 21, 2019. For the reasons given, the Court denies Defendant's Motion.

         I.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         In 2009, Stennis began working at BSU as a tenure track faculty member in the Department of Social Work (“DSW”). ECF No. 37-3. Throughout her employment, Stennis received positive performance reviews, and according to her 2012-2013 evaluation, exceeded expectations in her job performance. ECF No. 46-2. After receiving two extensions to apply for tenure, Stennis' tenure review was scheduled for the 2013-2014 academic year. ECF No. 37-3; ECF No. 37-4.

         In the Fall of 2012, Stennis attended a social work conference with social work students and her direct supervisor and Chair of the Social Work Department, Dr. Andre Stevenson. ECF No. 46-7. Prior to the conference, Stevenson announced to the students that “we're all going to this conference and as you all know there are two gay males going and I need you to sign some document to say that you're okay with sharing housing with these gay males.” Id. After the meeting, Stevenson shared with Stennis that he was not comfortable with “the whole gay thing.” Id. at 44.

         In the Spring of 2013, Stennis discussed with Stevenson that one student had requested adding a course in the Social Work Department about homosexuality. ECF No. 37-9. Stevenson rejected the idea, declaring that no such course would be offered “on his watch.” Id. In April and May 2013, Stennis shared concerns with Stevenson “about female students' treatment by [him].” Id.; ECF No. 46-7 at p. 26. Stevenson asked Stennis to speak with the members of the Social Work Club, of which Stennis was the faculty advisor, to see what they thought of him. ECF No. 46-7, at p. 27.

         In May 2013, Stennis and Stevenson met to discuss her performance evaluation for the 2012-2013 academic year. ECF No. 37-9. Under “areas for further development, ” Stevenson noted that on several occasions Stennis had misadvised students and cancelled classes without forewarning. ECF No. 46-9. Stennis responded by noting on her evaluation that Stevenson could not provide any evidence of mis-advisement and by listing the various ways students were notified of cancelled classes. Id. In the same meeting, Stennis “expressed concern to Dr. Stevenson about how the gay students within the DSW were being treated by Dr. Stevenson.” ECF No. 37-35. Also in May, Stennis attended a retreat for the Social Work Club's executive board. ECF No. 46-2. There, Stennis inquired about Stevenson's performance as Chair, as he had requested. Id. Several students expressed concern that Stevenson unfairly treated students based on gender and sexual orientation. Id.

         On September 3, 2013, Stennis sent Stevenson a memo entitled “Assessment of Dr. Stevenson, Chair, ” which memorialized the information that Stennis learned at the Social Work Club's retreat. ECF Nos. 37-3, 37-5 (“the assessment”). The assessment stated, in relevant part:

Favoritism: Students feel that there is clear evidence of unfair discrimination and favoritism shown to them by the Chair and specific faculty members. If not addressed, such actions could warrant a decrease in SOWK [Social Work] majors, more clearly seen faculty discord, and even legal actions (ie. Law suits).

         ECF No. 37-5. Stennis also communicated to Stevenson that the nature of the student complaints centered on Stevenson's discriminatory acts and words toward gay and lesbian students. ECF No. 37-3. Two days later, Stevenson responded to the assessment, stating: “For the record: I didn't ask you or the Social Work Club e-board for an assessment of me as Chair. I asked you to ask them how I could further assist/support them in their efforts as a club.” ECF No. 37-7.

         Six days later, on September 9, 2013, Stevenson added a co-advisor to the Social Work Club to work alongside Stennis “[a]s a result of what [he] considered to be inappropriate behavior” of Stennis in having conducted the assessment. ECF No. 37-17. Stevenson's reason for adding a co-advisor was in direct response to Stennis submitting the assessment. Id. “Even if requested, ” Stevenson writes, “such an ‘assessment' could not be accurately done within 10 days. As a result of what I considered inappropriate behavior, I assigned another faculty member to serve as co-advisor of the Social Work Club.” Id. At the same time, Stevenson also added co-advisors to at least one other student organization “[i]n an attempt to become more transparent and collegial.” ECF No. 37-8.

         Two days after the co-advisor change, Stennis, Stevenson, and Jerome Schiele, Dean of the School of Professional Studies, met to discuss the assessment. ECF Nos. 37-3, 37-6. During this meeting, Stennis raised the students' concerns regarding discrimination against gay and female students. ECF Nos. 37-3, 37-6.

         On September 13, 2013, Stennis was notified of her eligibility to apply for tenure. ECF No. 37-34. On September 25, 2013, Stennis notified Elizabeth Stachura, BSU Labor and Employee Relations Manager who was also the University's acting Title IX officer, of the adverse actions Stevenson had taken against Stennis since the assessment had been communicated to him. ECF Nos. 37-3, 37-10, 37-36. Stennis conveyed to Stachura the students' concerns regarding Stevenson discriminating against homosexual and female students, as well as her concern of “how all of this was impacting [her] . . . tenure process.” ECF No. 37-3. In response, Stachura's only suggestion was that Stennis speak with Stevenson directly about her concerns and ask him for “ways and areas” she could improve her performance. ECF Nos. 37-9, 37-36.

         Stennis took Stachura's advice, and on October 1, 2013, met with Stevenson to discuss her tenure application, among other things. See ECF No. 37-11. As a follow-up to the meeting Stevenson emailed Stennis the next day to express concerns about her advisement of students even though he had not raised this issue during their meeting about Stennis' job performance. See id.; ECF No. 37-3. Stennis, fearing Stevenson's “mis-advisement” claim could be used against her in the tenure process, responded that she had no knowledge of such issues but remained willing to review any student files to discuss specific advisement concerns. ECF No. 37-3, ECF No. 37-11. Stevenson replied that he would review student files with Stennis but only with Dean Schiele present. ECF No. 37-11.

         On October 11, 2013, Stennis submitted two copies of her tenure dossier to Stevenson. ECF No. 37-3. In response, Stevenson notified Stennis that she was required to submit three copies. ECF No. 37-12. After confirming with the University's Appointment, Rank, and Tenure (“ART”) Committee Chair that three copies were required, Stennis asked Stevenson whether she could submit additional materials to supplement her application and an additional copy of her dossier. ECF No. 37-14. Stevenson responded that he would include one additional article provided by Stennis but would not accept additional copies of her dossier. Id. As grounds, he noted “slight” inconsistencies between the two submitted copies and that the third copy, if submitted, would be late. ECF Nos. 37-12, 37-14.

         Soon after this interaction with Stevenson, Stennis again reached out to Stachura regarding concerns that Stevenson may undeservedly interfere with her ability to receive tenure. Stachura, once again, offered little assistance other than to recommend more discussions, this time with Dean Schiele. ECF Nos. 37-10, 37-36. Stachura also sent Stennis a copy of the Grievance Process from the Faculty Handbook, although Stachura cautioned that the grievance process was not an appropriate venue to pursue discrimination complaints. ECF No. 37-15. Stachura also suggested that Stennis follow up with Schiele. Id.; ECF No. 37-36.

         On November 8, 2013, Stennis met with Schiele to discuss the mis-advisement concerns raised by Stevenson. ECF No. 46-2. After a review of student files, Schiele agreed that the concerns were unsubstantiated. Id.

         On November 12, 2013, Stachura spoke with Schiele about Stennis' complaints. ECF Nos. 37-10, 37-36. According to Stachura's notes taken during this conversation, the two discussed Stennis as a faculty member who “cares about students.” ECF No. 37-10. The notes also reflect discussion of someone unidentified in the notes as being described as “not collegial, ” “dictatorial, ” “abrasive, ” and “rude.” Id. The notes also reflect discussion about “students['] fear of reprisals/retaliation, ” and that “2 faculty had concerns: last 6 including Stevenson, ” and that one particular action item included to “go over faculty evals of him.” Id. Although by affidavit, Stachura confirmed her conversation with Schiele, she does not decipher with any more particularity her notes.

         On November 13, 2013, Stennis' husband called the University President's office on behalf of a University social work student who was also on the executive board of the Social Work Club, complaining about an advisement matter involving the student. ECF Nos. 37-3, 37-16, 37-17. The matter appears wholly unrelated to Stennis as a professor in the department. Although Stennis explained that this student for whom her husband called had become very close with her family, both Schiele and Stevenson found the call to be “highly inappropriate.” ECF No. 46-7 (Stennis describing student as “part of the family”); ECF Nos. 37-16, 37-17, 37-37. However, neither Dean Schiele nor Stevenson could justify the basis of such characterization, nor did either take any formal action against Stennis related to her husband's phone call.

         The same day, Stennis requested a meeting with Schiele to discuss concerns raised by her students and her tenure process. ECF No. 37-18. Schiele responded that he had spoken with Human Resources about Stennis' concerns and requested that Sheila Hobson, Director of Human Resources, and Stevenson be present at the meeting. Id.; ECF No. 37-19. Stennis agreed to both Hobson and Stevenson's participation. ECF No. 37-19.

         On November 19, 2013, Stennis again raised concerns to Stachura about her tenure process. ECF Nos. 37-10, 37-36. Stennis also mentioned that she had sought mediation with Stevenson, but he had declined the offer. ECF No. 37-10. The next day, Stachura further explored the possibility of mediation with Stevenson, although Stevenson again declined to participate. ECF Nos. 37-10, 37-20, 37-36.

         On November 20, 2013, Stennis met with Stevenson, Schiele, and Hobson to discuss her concerns regarding her tenure application and her husband's call to the University President's office. ECF Nos. 37-16, 37-17, 37-37. During this meeting, Schiele raised the issue of student mis-advisement despite his previous determination that none had occurred. ECF No. 46-2. The meeting otherwise, and almost exclusively, focused on the phone call that her husband made. Id. At the end of the meeting, Stevenson removed Stennis from her role as co-advisor of the Social Work Club. ECF Nos. 37-16, 37-17.[2] The stated reason for her removal was her husband's call. ECF Nos. 37-16, 37-17.

         On November 21, 2013, Schiele emailed Stennis a summary of the November 20, 2013 meeting. ECF Nos. 37-16, 37-22, 37-37. Two days later, Stennis responded to Schiele, laying out her concerns with her tenure application and the work environment. ECF No. 46-10. Stennis specifically described having sought Stachura's assistance with “concerns related to tenure and perception that [her] chair would possibly try to derail [her] process, citing advisement as an example of something he may use.” Id. Stennis, more particularly, described her reason for seeking Stachura's help was to “protect [herself] from workplace bullying and reprisal by [her] chair and other colleagues.” Id.

         In the same letter, Stennis also communicated to Schiele that Stevenson had just informed Stennis' female colleague that the colleague's contract would not be renewed so he could hire someone more in line with “his vision.” Id. Stennis further described Stevenson's overt hostility to the student's request for a class on homosexuality: “[h]e didn't want his legacy to be that he introduced a class on some ‘gay***'.” Id. Stennis also noted that she had conveyed her concerns regarding Stevenson's bias and retaliatory acts to Schiele in the past. Id.

         On November 24, 2013, Stennis informed Stachura that she had met with Schiele, Stevenson, and Hobson. ECF No. 37-15. Stennis further relayed that she was considering filing a grievance for the ...


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