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Sneed v. Strayer University

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

March 8, 2016

KENNETH SNEED, Plaintiff,
v.
STRAYER UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

GERALD BRUCE LEE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants Strayer University ("Strayer"), Chad Nyce, and Matt Smith's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 37). This case concerns Plaintiff, Kenneth Sneed's, allegations that Defendants discriminated against him on the basis of his age and race in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), Title VII, and 42 U.S.C. § 1981; breached its employment contract with Plaintiff; and fraudulently misrepresented an available employment position for Plaintiff at the Salt Lake City Global facility. There are four issues before the Court.

The first issue is whether Plaintiff has produced evidence demonstrating a prima facie case of discrimination, either based on age or race, sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact for trial. The second issue is whether, even if Plaintiff has established a prima facie claim of discrimination, thus shifting the burden of proof to Defendants, Plaintiff has presented evidence of pretext disputing Defendants' proffered nondiscriminatory purpose for Plaintiffs termination. The third issue is whether Plaintiffs allegations-through his affidavit and deposition alone-that Smith and Nyce had an input on every decision regarding Plaintiffs employment status, presents evidence sufficient to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact as to intentional discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Finally, the fourth issue is whether Plaintiff can bring a breach of contract claim on an alleged employment contact, where the employment contract states that it is an at-will contract, for no specified time period, and is signed by the Plaintiff.

The Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment because Plaintiff has not presented evidence demonstrating a prima facie case of either race or age discrimination. Alternatively, Plaintiff has not provided evidence showing a genuine issue of a discriminatory pretext to rebut Defendants' proffered nondiscriminatory justification for Plaintiffs termination. Additionally, Plaintiff has not presented evidence showing a genuine issue of material fact as to intentional discrimination under §1981. Finally, Plaintiff has not presented evidence showing a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether the employment contract between Plaintiff and Defendants was anything more than a traditional at-will employment contract.

I. BACKGROUND

In December 2011, Sneed, a then 49 year-old African-American male, interviewed with Strayer University ("Strayer") and Matt Smith ("Smith") for the position of Director of Operations. Am. Compl. at 2. With the approval of Chad Nyce ("Nyce"), Strayer hired Sneed in January 2012 to be its Director of Operations. Id. When Sneed was hired Strayer had Global facilities in Chantilly, Virginia ("Chantilly Global facility") and Salt Lake City, Utah ("Salt Lake City Global facility"). See generally Am. Compl. All parties admit that in January 2012 Smith and Sneed discussed whether Sneed, as Director of Operations, would be headquartered at the Chantilly Global facility or the Salt Lake City Global facility. Id. On January 30, 2012, Strayer sent Sneed an official offer letter stating his position would be located in Salt Lake City. See Def. Mtn. for Summ. Judgment, Exhibit A (hereinafter "January 30, 2012 Employment Letter"). Sneed signed this letter and returned it to Strayer. See Id. Sneed maintains that the January 30, 2012 Employment Letter supports his belief that he was hired for Director of Operations for the Salt Lake City Global facility, with the understanding that he would work at the Chantilly Global facility temporarily, then transfer to the Salt Lake City Global facility. See Decl. Kenneth Sneed at 1 (hereinafter "Sneed Decl."). Plaintiff further contends that Smith informed him that accepting a position at both locations was a condition of Sneed being hired at all. Id.

However, Strayer maintains that after the January 30, 2012 letter was given to Sneed, on January 31, 2012, Strayer presented Sneed with a "corrected" employment letter. See Declaration of Debra Sandler (hereinafter "Sandler Decl."). The letter dated January 31, 2012, which Strayer alleges was given to Sneed, added significant language that was not present in the first letter and changed the location of Plaintiff s employment from Salt Lake City to Chantilly, Virginia. Id; see also Def. Mtn. for Summ. Judgment, Exhibit B (hereinafter "January 31, 2012 Employment Letter"). The January 31, 2012 Employment Letter does not bear Sneed's signature and Sneed claims he was never given such a letter. See January 31, 2012 Employment Letter at 2; see also Deposition Transcript of Kenneth Sneed (hereinafter "Sneed Depo.") 77:3-22.

On March 5, 2012 Sneed began working at the Chantilly Global facility. January 30, 2012 Employment Letter. On October 15, 2012, Strayer closed the Chantilly Global facility. Am. Compl, Ex. E (hereinafter "Closure Letter"). Every employee at the Chantilly Global facility-except those who were later transferred to the Salt Lake City Global facility or who were already employees of the Salt Lake City Global facility-was terminated when the Chantilly Global facility closed, including Sneed. Id.; Sandler Decl. at 4; Nyce Decl at 2; Smith Decl. at 3-4. Although Sneed maintains that he had a clear contract with Strayer that once the Chantilly Global facility closed, he would be transferred to the Salt Lake City Global facility; his termination was not accompanied by an offer to transfer locations. See Am. Compl. at 1. There is nothing in the employment offer-either the January 30, 2012 or the January 31, 2012 letter- that refers to Strayer closing the Chantilly, Virginia office and transferring Plaintiff to a comparable position at the Salt Lake City Global facility. See Am. Compl., Ex. D.

On April 14, 2013 Sneed filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleging Strayer discriminated against him based on his age (50) and race (African-American). Am. Compl, Ex. A. After being reissued a Dismissal and Notice of Rights by the EEOC on September 30, 2014, Sneed filed his Amended Complaint in this Court on April 04, 2014. Am. Complaint (Doc. 11). On September 23, 2015 Defendants filed this Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 37). Sneed contends that Strayer University discriminated against him when they failed to transfer him to Strayer's Headquarters Office in Salt Lake City, Utah when Strayer University closed down the Chantilly Global facility in Chantilly, Virginia. He also alleges that Strayer breached an oral employment contract and fraudulently misrepresented to him that he would be transferred to the Salt Lake City Global facility.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, the Court must grant summary judgment if the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the Court views the facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Boitnott v. Corning, Inc., 669 F.3d 172, 175 (4th Cir. 2012) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). Once a motion for summary judgment is properly made and supported, the opposing party has the burden of showing that a genuine dispute of material fact exists. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986); Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted). "[T]he 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." Emmett v. Johnson, 532 F.3d 291, 297 (4th Cir. 2008) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48).

A "material fact" is a fact that might affect the outcome of a party's case. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; JKC Holding Co. v. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001). Whether a fact is considered to be "material" is determined by the substantive law, and "[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Hooven-Lewis v. Caldera, 249 F.3d 259, 265 (4th Cir. 2001).

A "genuine" issue concerning a "material" fact arises when the evidence is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Resource Bankshares Corp. v. St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co., 407 F.3d 631, 635 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). Rule 56(e) requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and by its own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986).

III. ANALYSIS

The Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment because Plaintiffs Complaint raises only conclusory allegations and is not supported by evidence. Thus, Plaintiffs Complaint fails to show there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Defendants discriminated against Plaintiff on the basis of his age or race in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), Title VII, or 42 U.S.C. § 1981; breached its employment contract with Plaintiff; or fraudulently misrepresented an available position for Plaintiff at the Salt Lake City Global facility.

A. Plaintiff Fails to Present Evidence Sufficient to Demonstrate Discrimination Based on Age

The Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment as to Plaintiffs Age Discrimination claim. The Court finds that Plaintiff fails to produce any evidence demonstrating a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Defendants acted with a discriminatory intent, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA").

Under § 4(a)(1) of the ADEA, "it shall be unlawful for an employer: (1) "to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's age; or (2), to limit, segregate, or classify his employees in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual's age." 29 U.S.C. 623(a)(1).

To establish a cause of action of age discrimination under the ADEA a plaintiff must demonstrate that "but for" the employer's motive to discriminate against the plaintiff on the basis of age, the plaintiff would not have been discharged. Univ. of Texas Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2522 (2013); E.E.O.C. v. Clay Printing Co., 955 F.2d 936, 941 (4th Cir. 1992). This but for standard can be established in one of two ways. Id. First, a plaintiff may meet this burden under the ordinary standards of proof by direct or indirect evidence relevant to and sufficiently probative of age discrimination. Id. This means, through direct or circumstantial, evidence a plaintiff must show: (1) that he was an employee covered by the Act, (2) who suffered an unfavorable action by an employer covered by the Act, and (3) that "age was a determining factor" in the action in the sense that "'but for'" the Defendants' intent to discriminate on the basis of age, the claimant would not have been subjected to the employment action. Id. Thus, to overcome a motion for summary judgment on an ADEA claim, a plaintiff has to "produce direct evidence of a stated purpose to discriminate on the basis of age and/or circumstantial evidence of a stated purpose to discriminate on the basis of age of sufficient probative force to reflect a genuine issue of material fact." Id. (quoting Goldberg v. B. Green and Co., Inc., 836 F.2d 845, 848 (4th Cir.1988)) (internal citations removed).

Second and alternatively, a plaintiff may resort to the burden shifting scheme established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Under this scheme, a plaintiff must demonstrate (1) he is over 40 years of age; (2) he suffered an adverse employment action; (3) he was performing his duties at a level that met his employer's legitimate expectations; and (4) he was replaced by a substantially younger individual. See O'Connor v. Consol Coin Caterers Corp., 517 U.S. 308, 310-11 (1996), cert, denied, 519 U.S. 1040 (1996); Stokes v. Westinghouse Savannah River Co., 206 F.3d 420, 430 (4th Cir. 2000). Once a plaintiff presents evidence of all four factors, the burden then shifts to the defendant to rebut the plaintiffs claim with evidence of a legitimate ...


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