Williams v. FLORIDA ATLANTIC UNIVERSITY et al
ORDER ON MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT. Signed by Judge Darrin P. Gayles (hs01)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA
Case No. 15-60621-CIV-GAYLES/TURNOFF
FLORIDA ATLANTIC UNIVERSITY,
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, CHARLES L.
BROWN, an individual, and
COREY KING, and individual,
THIS CAUSE comes before the Court upon Defendant Florida Atlantic University
Board of Trustees’s Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 74] and Defendant Charles L.
Brown’s Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 75]. The Court has carefully reviewed the
Motions, the record, argument of counsel, and the applicable law. For the reasons set forth
below, the Motions are granted.
Plaintiff Rosalia Williams (“Plaintiff”), a 63 year-old black woman, 1 brought this action
against Defendants Florida Atlantic University Board of Trustees (“FAU”), Charles L. Brown
(“Brown”), and Corey King (“King”) (collectively “Defendants”) alleging claims for race,
gender, and age discrimination and for retaliation.
All of Plaintiff’s claims relate to her
termination following a heavily publicized student incident at FAU.
Plaintiff was 59 years old during the relevant time period.
Plaintiff’s Employment History at FAU
In 2001, Plaintiff began working at FAU as the Assistant Director of Multicultural
Affairs for FAU’s Broward Campuses. FAU later promoted her to Director of Multicultural
Affairs and Pre-College Programs at FAU’s Boca Raton Campus. Plaintiff reported to Brown,
the Vice President of Student Affairs. In 2009, she was hired as FAU’s Vice President of
Students Affairs and Dean of Students. A year later, FAU promoted Plaintiff to Associate Dean
of Students for FAU’s Broward Campuses. Plaintiff replaced David Bynes (“Bynes”), a black
man, who had been serving as interim Associate Dean.
By 2013, there were three associate
deans at FAU, Plaintiff, Terry Mena (“Mena”), a 42 year-old Hispanic man, and A.J. Chase
(“Chase”), a 48 year-old white woman.
Code of Conduct
FAU’s Code of Conduct governs the student disciplinary process and sets forth potential
conduct violations, including conduct that threatens the health, safety, or welfare of individuals
or the university community. Under the Code, the disciplinary process begins when a Dean,
Associate Dean or Assistant Dean (“designees”) receives a complaint that a student has violated
the Code. Upon receipt of the complaint, the designee has three options: (1) set an investigative
conference with the student to gather information; (2) issue a notice of charges and set a student
conference; or (3) implement emergency measures.
If the designee proceeds under the first
option, there is an investigation and potential review either by a hearing officer or the Student
Conduct Board. The results of the investigation will determine whether FAU ultimately issues a
notice of charges against a student.
If the complaint presents a situation that poses an imminent threat of harm to the student
or others or affects the health, safety, or welfare of the student, the designee can implement
emergency measures. Emergency measures include interim suspension, restriction of access to a
particular class or campus, or restriction of contact with a particular individual. Although King,
the Associate Vice President and Dean of Students, testified that only the Dean could implement
emergency measures, the Code’s plain language permits any designee to implement emergency
measures. In addition, while the term emergency appears to contemplate the need for immediate
action, particularly in light of the purported threat to safety, the Code does not have a provision
limiting the time for a designee to implement emergency measures. King and Joanna Ellwood
(“Ellwood”), the Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Conduct, both testified that,
in practice, the designee should implement emergency measures as soon as possible.
FAU’s Department of Student Affairs has draft template letters for each stage of the
disciplinary process, which are updated upon the advice of FAU’s general counsel’s office.
King, Brown, and Ellwood all contend that Plaintiff was not permitted to alter the templates
without consulting the Dean and the general counsel’s office. The Code is silent on this issue
and Plaintiff has presented evidence that other deans modified templates without prior approval.
The Incident 2
On February 25, 2013, Ryan Rotela (“Rotela”) objected to an exercise in his
Multicultural Communications class after Professor Deandre Poole (“Poole”) asked students to
write J-E-S-U-S on a piece of paper and decide whether they felt comfortable standing on the
paper. Following class, Rotella confronted Poole and allegedly threatened to physically assault
him. On February 26, 2013, Plaintiff received the security report regarding the Rotela incident.
She then met with Dr. Noemi Marin, who had already met with Rotela, Andrew Cuthbert, a
In her Response to Defendant’s Statement of Material Facts and Additional Disputed Facts in Support of
Her Response in Opposition to Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 87], Plaintiff relays her
recollection of Brown’s comments and/or actions prior to the Rotela incident. As detailed in this Court’s order on
the motion to dismiss, the actionable timeframe for Plaintiff’s claims began on February 26, 2013. [ECF No. 59].
King’s alleged animus towards educated black women and/or Brown and King’s purported insistence that because
Plaintiff, Brown, and King were all black they should get along relate to events occurring before February 26, 2013.
As such, the Court will not consider them. The Court notes, however, that these isolated comments do not otherwise
support Plaintiff’s claims.
student witness to the event, and with Poole. On Thursday, February 28, 2013, Plaintiff sent
Rotela an investigation conference letter.
Plaintiff first met with Rotela on March 7, 2013. In her deposition, Plaintiff testified that
Rotela was agitated and refused to take responsibility for his actions.
Rotela denied ever
threatening Poole. Plaintiff again communicated with Poole, who requested that Rotela not
return to class.
On March 8, 2013, Plaintiff emailed King asking to discuss a student conduct case, but
did not relay the name of the student, details about the incident, or that she was going to issue
charges or emergency measures. The same day, before hearing back from King or consulting
with the general counsel’s office, Plaintiff emailed Rotela a Notice of Charges which included
emergency measures barring him from Poole’s class and from contact with any student in
Poole’s class. In drafting the Notice of Charges, Plaintiff modified FAU’s template letter. On
March 10, 2013, Plaintiff discussed the Rotela incident with King.
Plaintiff attempted to schedule a hearing for Rotela, but, before the hearing could take
place, Rotela hired an attorney and contacted the media. The media coverage of the incident
focused on the classroom exercise and characterized Rotela’s discipline as punishment for
making a religious objection to an offensive assignment. This prompted an angry response from
members of the community and a substantial amount of negative national media attention. FAU
eventually reached an agreement with Rotela and dropped the charges.
Brown initially informed Plaintiff that she would be reprimanded for what he believed to
be a failure to follow the Code’s procedures. Plaintiff indicated that she would oppose any
reprimand. Brown never issued a written reprimand. On April 26, 2013, FAU terminated
Plaintiff. FAU replaced Plaintiff with William Hortsman, a white man who is approximately 5
years younger than Plaintiff.
The Other Deans’ Conduct
Plaintiff asserts that Mena and Chase, in their capacity as associate deans, issued charges
that included emergency measures. 3 There is no written record of Mena or Chase implementing
emergency measures. In addition, Brown, King, and Ellwood have all stated that they were
unaware of Mena or Chase ever implementing emergency measures.
On at least two occasions, Plaintiff’s replacement, Hortsman, issued charges more than a
week after the reported improper student conduct. Hortsman did not implement emergency
measures. It is undisputed that neither Mena, Chase, nor Hortsman ever issued charges relating
to a nationally publicized student incident.
Plaintiff’s Participation in DROP
Plaintiff participated in the Florida Deferred Retirement Option Program (“DROP”)
retirement system. At the time of her termination, she had three more years until she retired
under DROP. Plaintiff claims that during the relevant time period, FAU began downsizing its
programs and did not renew the contracts and/or forced the resignation of four other DROP
participants, who were replaced by younger employees. Plaintiff does not provide any evidence
relating to the statistical significance of the four other DROP participants, including how many
DROP participants remained employed at FAU following their forced retirement.
VI. Procedural History
Chase’s Declaration is the subject of FAU’s Motion to Strike Third Party Unsworn Declarations [ECF No.
100]. The Court, however, finds that Chase’s unsworn declaration, even if accepted as true, does not affect its
ruling, and therefore declines to determine, on its merits, the Motion to Strike.
Plaintiff filed her Second Amended Complaint on September 25, 2015, asserting claims
for gender, race, and age discrimination and claims for retaliation [ECF No. 35]. On March 21,
2016, the Court issued an order limiting the time-period for Plaintiff’s claims to the “Rotela
incident” and dismissing Plaintiff’s claims against King and Brown for retaliation and age
discrimination. [ECF No. 59].
On June 23, 2016, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed her claims
against King. [ECF No. 69]. On June 27, 2016, FAU and Brown each moved for summary
judgment as to all remaining claims.
Standard of Review
Summary judgment, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), “is appropriate only
if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled
to judgment as a matter of law.” Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S. Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (per curiam)
(quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a)) (internal quotation marks omitted). “By its very terms, this
standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will
not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is
that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242,
247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). An issue is “genuine” when a reasonable trier of fact,
viewing all of the record evidence, could rationally find in favor of the nonmoving party in light
of his burden of proof. Harrison v. Culliver, 746 F.3d 1288, 1298 (11th Cir. 2014). And a fact is
“material” if, “under the applicable substantive law, it might affect the outcome of the case.”
Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., 357 F.3d 1256, 1259-60 (11th Cir. 2004). “Where the material
facts are undisputed and all that remains are questions of law, summary judgment may be granted.”
Eternal Word Television Network, Inc. v. Sec’y of U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 818
F.3d 1122, 1138 (11th Cir. 2016). The Court must construe the evidence in the light most
favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor. SEC v.
Monterosso, 756 F.3d 1326, 1333 (11th Cir. 2014). However, to prevail on a motion for summary
judgment, “the nonmoving party must offer more than a mere scintilla of evidence for its position;
indeed, the nonmoving party must make a showing sufficient to permit the jury to reasonably find
on its behalf.” Urquilla-Diaz v. Kaplan Univ., 780 F.3d 1039, 1050 (11th Cir. 2015).
Plaintiff’s Race and Gender Discrimination Claims
Plaintiff contends that Defendants terminated her because of her race and/or her gender.
Title VII, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Florida Civil
Rights Act (“FCRA”) all prohibit discrimination on the basis of race and gender. See 42 U.S.C.
§§ 2000e et seq.; 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Fla. Stat. § 760.10 et seq. The Court applies the same legal
analysis to Title VII, § 1983, and FCRA claims that are based on the same set of facts. Quigg v.
Thomas County School Dist., 814 F.3d 1227, 1235 (11th Cir. 2016) (Title VII and § 1983);
Hampton v. City of South Miami, 186 Fed. App’x. 967 n. 2 (11th Cir. 2006) (Title VII and
Race and gender discrimination claims can be categorized as either single-motive or
mixed-motive “claims.” Quigg, 814 F.3d at 1235. A single-motive, or “pretext,” case is one
where an illegitimate reason, such as race or gender, was the sole motivation for the adverse
employment decision. Id. A mixed-motive case is one where both legitimate and illegitimate
reasons motivated the employer’s adverse employment decision. Id. Mixed-motive and singlemotive discrimination are not “distinct causes of action” but rather “serve as alternative
causation standards for proving discrimination.” Quigg, 814 F.3d at 1235 n.4.
A plaintiff can establish single-motive and mixed-motive discrimination through direct or
circumstantial evidence. Id. The Court analyzes single-motive claims based on circumstantial
evidence under the familiar McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. 4 Id. at 1237 (citing
McDonnell Douglas v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)). First, the plaintiff/employee must establish
a prima facie case of discrimination. The burden then shifts to the defendant/employer to
articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. If the
defendant is able to do so, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the defendant’s
proffered legitimate reason was merely pretext for discrimination. McDonnell Douglas, 411
U.S. at 802-805.
The plaintiff must ultimately show that the “true reason” for the employer’s
adverse employment action was to discriminate against her. Quigg, 814 F.3d at 1237 (quoting
Texas Dep’t of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 251-53 (1981)).
The Court’s analysis for mixed-motive claims based on circumstantial evidence is
different. In Quigg, the Eleventh Circuit adopted the mixed-motive framework set forth by the
Sixth Circuit in White v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 533 F.3d 381 (6th Cir. 2008). Id. at 1239.
Under the Quigg/White framework, the Court asks “whether a plaintiff has offered ‘evidence
sufficient to convince a jury that: (1) the defendant took an adverse employment action against
the plaintiff; and (2) [a protected characteristic] was a motivating factor for the defendant’s
adverse employment action.’” Id. (quoting White, 533 F.3d at 400).
Plaintiff filed her Amended Complaint on September 28, 2015. At that time, while other
circuits had set forth a specific framework for mixed-motive claims that differed from the
McDonnell Douglas burden shifting framework, the Eleventh Circuit had yet to address the
issue. On February 22, 2016, after the parties had briefed Defendants’ motions to dismiss but
before this Court ruled, the Eleventh Circuit issued its ruling in Quigg.
In its Order on
Defendants’ motions to dismiss, this Court raised the possibility that Quigg might apply to
Plaintiff does not proffer any direct evidence of discrimination.
Now, in response to Defendants’ motions for summary judgment, Plaintiff raises, for the
first time, a mixed-motive theory of discrimination. The Court finds Plaintiff’s attempt to recast
her claims untimely and without merit.
First, the law in this Circuit, while not entirely clear, appears to suggest that it is too late
for Plaintiff to assert her claims under a mixed-motive theory. See Bartels v. Southern Motors of
Savannah, Inc., No. 16-11958, 2017 WL 894452 at *5 (11th Cir. March 7, 2017) (refusing to
consider whether mixed-motive framework applied to FMLA retaliation claim when raised for
the first time on appeal); McCalister v. Tennessee Valley Authority Board of Directors, No. 3:14cv-01569-HGD, 2017 WL 734504 at *23 n.6 (N.D. Ala. Feb. 24, 2017) (refusing to consider
mixed-motive theory of discrimination when raised for the first time in the plaintiff’s opposition
memorandum to the defendant’s motion for summary judgment). Indeed, “[a] plaintiff may not
amend her complaint through argument in a brief opposing summary judgment.” McCalister,
2017 WL 734504 at *23 n.6 (quoting Gilmour v. Gates, McDonald & Co., 382 F.3d 1312, 131415 (11th Cir. 2004)).
More importantly, Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint does not allege that she was
terminated for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons. Although she uses “mixed-motive”
terminology in response to the motions for summary judgment, she repeatedly asserts that she
did not violate FAU’s policies and procedures and that, therefore, Defendants had no legitimate
reason to fire her. Plaintiff’s insistence that she was fired solely because of an illegitimate
reason precludes her from proceeding under a mixed-motive theory. See Johnson v. Young, Case
No. 4:15cv543-RH/CAS, 2016 WL 4536406 at *3 (N.D. Fla. Aug. 30, 2016) (“[Plaintiff] asserts
that the [defendant] acted solely from an improper motive: race. This is not a mixed-motive
case.”). However, because the result is the same, the Court will analyze Plaintiff’s claims using
both frameworks. Id. (finding that under the circumstances of that case “the answer will be the
same to the analytically separate questions of whether race was a motivating factor in the
[defendant’s] demotion decision and whether the [defendant’s] proffered reason for the demotion
McDonnell Douglas Single Motive Framework
Plaintiff argues that FAU terminated her based on her race and/or her gender. As set
forth above, the Court evaluates these claims under the McDonnell Douglas framework.
Prima Facie Case
Plaintiff’s first step under the McDonnell Douglas framework is to “make out a prima
facie case of discrimination that ‘in effect creates a presumption that the employer unlawfully
discriminated against the employee.’” Flowers v. Troup County, 803 F.3d 1327, 1336 (11th Cir.
2015) (quoting Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 254). Plaintiff must show that she (1) was a member of a
protected class; (2) was qualified for the position; (3) experienced an adverse employment
action; and (4) received less favorable treatment than similarly situated employees outside of her
protected class. Id. While the burden to establish a prima facie case is “not onerous . . . it does
not . . . relieve Title VII plaintiffs of their burden to put forth evidence of discrimination on the
basis of race [or gender].” Flowers, 803 F.3d at 1336 (internal citations omitted).
It is undisputed that Plaintiff is a member of a protected class (race and gender), that she
was qualified for her position, and that she suffered an adverse employment action (termination).
The parties do, however, disagree on whether Plaintiff received less favorable treatment than
similarly situated employees outside of her protected class. In particular, the parties dispute
whether there are any similarly situated comparators.
“In a comparator analysis, the plaintiff is matched with a person or persons who have
very similar job-related characteristics and who are in a similar situation to determine if the
plaintiff has been treated differently than others who are similar to him.” MacPherson v. Univ.
of Montevello, 922 F.2d 766, 774 n.16 (11th Cir. 1991).
The Court must evaluate the
qualifications of the purported comparators as well as their conduct and the context in which
they acted to determine if they are similarly situated to Plaintiff. See Nix v. WLCY, 738 F.2d
1181, 1186 (11th Cir. 1984); Burke-Fowler v. Orange Cty, Fla., 447 F.3d 1319, 1325 (11th Cir.
Plaintiff argues that Mena and Chase were similarly situated to her yet were not
terminated. 5 The Court finds, however, that neither Mena nor Chase were similarly situated to
Plaintiff. While they were both associate deans, wrote similar notices of charges, 6 and modified
templates, they were markedly different from Plaintiff in one important respect. They did not
handle a heavily publicized student incident. See Plaintiff’s Response to Defendant’s Statement
of Material Facts [ECF No. 87 ¶ 29 (“Terry Mena and AJ Chase did not handle any student
conduct cases that were publicized by the media.”)].
The media coverage of the Rotella incident is a game changer. The context in which
Mena and Chase issued notice of charges was markedly different from the highly charged
environment in which Plaintiff implemented emergency measures against Rotella. See Nix, 738
F.2d at 1186 (finding no prima facie case where the plaintiff and his comparator’s
“circumstances were different.”); Burke, 447 F.3d at 1325 (“Different types and degrees of
misconduct may warrant different types and degrees of discipline.”); Holifield v. Reno, 115 F.3d
1555, 1562 (11th Cir. 1997) (“In determining whether employees are similarly situated for
purposes of establishing a prima facie case, it is necessary to consider whether the employees are
involved in or accused of the same or similar conduct and disciplined in different ways.”).
Chase is a woman and therefore cannot be considered as a comparator for Plaintiff’s gender discrimination
claim. Lewis v. Chattahoochee Valley Community College, 136 F. Supp. 2d 1232, 1237 (M.D. Ala. 2001) (granting
summary judgment in favor of the employer on plaintiff’s gender discrimination claim because the comparators
identified by the plaintiff were also female).
There is a factual dispute as to whether Mena or Chase ever issued similar notice of charges and/or
implemented emergency measures.
Plaintiff handled a very sensitive student matter that caused a very negative public reaction. Her
comparators did not, and, therefore, are not similarly situated to Plaintiff. See Jackson v.
Rooney, Case No. 13-cv-1706 (VAB), 2016 WL 4769717 at *12 (D. Conn. Sept. 13, 2016)
(finding comparators were not similarly situated to plaintiff in part because comparators did not
“receive extensive news coverage of their alleged wrongdoing that could have eroded public
trust.”). Accordingly, the Court finds that Plaintiff fails to establish a prima facie case of race or
2. Legitimate Interest and Pretext
Despite finding that Plaintiff has not established a prima facie case, the Court will
complete the remainder of the McDonnell Douglas analysis because it does not change the
Court’s finding that Defendants are entitled to summary judgment.
Defendants state that
Plaintiff was fired because she violated FAU’s policies and procedures in her handling of the
Rotela incident. In particular, Defendants contend that, “[f]aced with increasing pressure from
prominent public officials and the national media to answer for the perceived suspension of a
student for voicing his religious objections, Dr. Brown decided to separate Plaintiff’s
[ECF No. 108 at pg. 11].
Terminating an employee for the perceived
mishandling of a “public relations catastrophe” is a legitimate non-discriminatory reason.
Therefore, the burden shifts back to Plaintiff to show that Defendants’ legitimate reason was
Plaintiff contends that (1) she did not violate any of FAU’s rules or policies and (2) that
her comparators engaged in similar conduct and were not disciplined in the same manner. She
argues, therefore, that Defendants’ legitimate reason is mere pretext for discrimination. The
First, it is immaterial that Plaintiff did not formally break any of FAU’s rules or
procedures. An employer may fire an employee for any reason so long as the reason is not due
to unlawful discrimination. “An employer who fires an employee under the mistaken but honest
impression that the employee violated a work rule is not liable for discriminatory conduct.”
Damon v. Fleming Supermarkets of Florida, 196 F.3d 1354, 1363 n.3 (11th Cir. 1999); Chapman
v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1030 (11th Cir. 2000) (“An employer may fire an employee for a
good reason, a bad reason, a reason based on erroneous facts, or for no reason at all, as long as its
action is not for a discriminatory reason.”). Indeed, an employer is under no obligation to be fair
and has the “right to interpret its rules as it chooses, and to make determinations as it sees fit
under those rules.” Nix, 738 F.2d at 1187 (“stated legitimate reason . . . does not have to be a
reason that the judge or jurors would act on or approve” even though reason “might seem
unfair.”). See also Carroll v. Office Depot, Inc., Case No. 2:13-cv-00414-AKK, 2015 WL
1487098 at *5 (N.D. Ala. March 30, 2015) (“[A]nti-discrimination laws do not prohibit
employers from treating employees unfairly.”).
The record is unclear as to whether Plaintiff formally violated a written rule or policy.
The record does, however, support a finding that FAU, Brown, and King believed that Plaintiff
exceeded her authority and did a poor job in handling the Rotella incident. Indeed, Plaintiff’s
direct involvement in this highly publicized event did not cast a good light on FAU.
possible that FAU even wanted to make her a scapegoat for the negative publicity. While
Defendants actions may be unfair, arbitrary, and even mean-spirited, there simply is no evidence
that Plaintiff’s race or gender influenced Defendants’ actions. See Silvera v. Orange County
School Bd., 244 F.3d 1253, 1262 (11th Cir. 2001) (“Responding to media attention and the
resulting perceived public pressure to take action against a child molester [and employee] may or
may not be laudatory traits in a public board, but it is race neutral.”); Price v. United
Technologies Corp., Case No. 99-8152-CIV-Ferguson, 2000 WL 33538488 at * 5 (S.D. Fla.
Aug. 16, 2000) (“As [Plaintiff] contends he may well have been made the scapegoat because the
serious technical failure occurred on his watch. The Court will not second-guess an employer’s
reasonable assessments as to who is responsible when things go bad in business.”); Darr v.
Telluride, Colo, 495 F.3d 1243, 1258 (10th Cir. 2007) (affirming summary judgment for
defendant on a terminated public employee’s substantive due process claim and holding that
“[w]e can think of only a few better reasons to fire an employee than the fact that the employee
can no longer perform his job duties because his allegedly hard-nosed conduct generated a
poisonous public reaction.”).
Plaintiff also argues that Mena, Chase, and Hortsman’s more favorable treatment for
similar actions proves pretext. 7 The Court disagrees. The similarly situated prima facie case
inquiry and the pretext inquiry “are not hermetically sealed off from one another.” Coleman v.
Donahoe, 667 F.3d 835, 857-58 (7th Cir. 2012). Often “the prima facie case and the pretext
analysis overlap,” and “the similarly situated inquiry dovetails with the pretext question.” Id. at
858. As detailed in the prima facie case discussion, Plaintiff’s comparators did not engage in
similar conduct because they did not handle a student event that turned into a media circus. See
Nix, 447 F.3d at 1325; Holifield, 115 F.3d at 1562.
Finally, Plaintiff argues that surrounding circumstances support an inference of pretext.
In support Plaintiff points to Hortsman, a white man, replacing her and receiving a promotion
over Bynes, a black man. The Court finds Plaintiff’s argument is without merit. Plaintiff simply
has not shown that Defendants’ actions were motivated by anything other than Plaintiff’s poor
handling of the Rotella incident. Accordingly, judgment on Plaintiff’s race and gender claims
Although not labeled a comparator, Plaintiff argues that Hortsman issued a similar notice of charges and
was not terminated.
must be entered in favor of the Defendants. 8
As detailed above, this case has never been pled as a mixed-motive claim. Although
Plaintiff addresses Defendants’ arguments about untimely raising a mixed-motive theory of
discrimination for the first time during summary judgment, she never states that Defendants had
more than one motive for firing her. This is not a case where an employee admittedly had work
performance issues and where the employee’s protected characteristic motivated the employer to
take an adverse action. Rather, Plaintiff maintains that she followed all procedures, did not break
any rules, and was completely justified in her actions following the Rotela incident. In effect,
Plaintiff pled and continues to argue that Defendants’ sole motivation was to discriminate based
on her race, gender, or age. As a result, the Court finds that a mixed-motive analysis is
inappropriate. See Johnson, 2016 WL 4536406 at *3. However, even if the Court were to find
some justification for applying the mixed-motive framework to this action, Plaintiff still has
failed to establish that an illegitimate factor played a motivating role, at all, in FAU’s decision to
terminate her. Quigg, 814 F.3d at 1239.
Age Discrimination Claim against FAU
Plaintiff also claims that FAU terminated her because of her age. To establish a prima
facie case of age discrimination, Plaintiff must prove “(1) that she was a member of the protected
group of persons between the ages or forty and seventy; (2) that she was subject to an adverse
employment action; (3) that a substantially younger person filled the position . . . from which she
was discharged; and (4) that she was qualified to do the job for which she was [terminated].”
Kragor v. Takeda Pharmaceuticals, 702 F.3d 1304, 1308-09 (11th Cir. 2012). Plaintiff may also
8 In addition, Dr. Brown clearly is entitled to qualified immunity as he did not violate any clearly established law.
See Edwards v. Wallace Community College, 49 F.3d 1517, 1524 (11th Cir. 1995) (“although intent is irrelevant for
a qualified immunity inquiry per se . . . it is relevant if intent is an element of the underlying constitutional
establish her prima facie case by showing that similarly situated employees who were
substantially younger than her received more favorable treatment. Caraway v. Sec’y U.S. Dept.
of Transp., 550 Fed. App’x 704, 709 (11th Cir. 2013).
Plaintiff argues that Hortsman, a younger person, replaced her and that therefore she has
established a prima facie case. However, it is undisputed that Hortsman is less than six years
younger than Plaintiff. The Court finds that, in this instance, Hortsman is not “substantially
younger” than Plaintiff. See Suarez v. School Bd. of Hillsborough County, Fla., 638 Fed.Appx.
897, 901 (11th Cir. 2016) (finding six year age difference insufficient to establish prima facie
case). While the Eleventh circuit has held that in some cases a smaller age difference is
sufficient to state a prima facie case, it appears to have limited those rulings to cases where there
is “substantial evidence of discriminatory animus beyond mere age difference.” Id. at 901 n.1
(“[Plaintiff] failed to create an inference of discrimination because a six-year age difference,
without more, does not establish that Mr. Suarez’s age was the but-for cause of the school
Board’s failure to hire him.”). Accordingly, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to establish
a prima facie case of age discrimination.
In addition, the record is very clear in this case that Defendants terminated Plaintiff due
to her handling of and the fallout from the Rotella incident. Under the ADEA, age must be the
“but-for” cause of the adverse employment action. Even if Defendants took into account that
Hortsman was younger or that Plaintiff participated in the DROP retirement program, 9 age
simply was not the but-for cause for Plaintiff’s termination. See Gross v. FBL Fin. Serv., Inc.,
557 U.S. 167, 177-78 (2009) (holding that the ADEA does not authorize mixed-motive claims).
The fact that four other DROP participants were terminated does not support Plaintiff’s prima facie case or
a finding of pretext as Plaintiff fails to present this information in a manner that is statistically significant. Maybe
FAU fired the only remaining DROP participants or maybe FAU retained 100 DROP participants and only fired
four. Without context, the evidence is meaningless and fails to support Plaintiff’s claims. See Watkins v. Sverdrup
Technology, Inc., 153 F.3d 1308, 1314-15 (11th Cir. 1998) (data “lacked sufficient depth, specificity, and probative
value to constitute both prima facie and pretext evidence.”)
Accordingly, summary judgment shall be entered in favor of FAU on Plaintiff’s age
Retaliation Claim against FAU
Title VII prohibits retaliation against an employee who has opposed an unlawful
employment practice. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).
The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting
analysis applies to claims for retaliation based on circumstantial evidence. Brown v. Alabama
Dept. of Transportation, 597 F.3d 1160, 1181 (11th Cir. 2010). To prove a prima facie case for
retaliation, Plaintiff must establish that: “(1) she engaged in an activity protected under Title VII;
(2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal connection between
the protected activity and the adverse employment action.” Crawford v. Carroll, 529 F.3d 961,
970 (11th Cir. 2008).
Once Plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to
Defendant to articulate a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment
action, at which point the burden shifts back to Plaintiff to show pretext. See Brown, 597 F.3d
Plaintiff argues that FAU terminated her after she complained that she was being treated
differently for her handling of the Rotela incident. While this might be sufficient to establish a
prima face case, the Court finds that, as detailed above, Plaintiff fails to rebut Defendant’s
legitimate non-discriminatory reason – namely that it fired Plaintiff for her handling of the
Rotela incident. Accordingly, summary judgment must be granted in favor of Defendant on this
Based on the foregoing, it is
ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that:
1. Defendant Florida Atlantic University Board of Trustees’s Motion for Summary
Judgment [ECF No. 74] is GRANTED;
2. Defendant Charles L. Brown’s Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 75] is
3. This case is CLOSED and all pending motions are DENIED as MOOT.
DONE AND ORDERED in Chambers at Miami, Florida, this 9th day of May, 2017
DARRIN P. GAYLES
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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