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Spencer v. Virginia State University

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

April 4, 2017

ZOE SPENCER, Plaintiff,


          Henry E. Hudson United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Zoe Spencer ("Plaintiff) brings suit against her employer, Virginia State University ("VSU" or "the University"), and Dr. Keith T. Miller, VSU's former President (collectively "Defendants"), alleging willful wage discrimination and retaliation under the Equal Pay Act of 1963 ("EPA"), 29 U.S.C. § 206(d), et seq.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 24.) Defendants seek dismissal of Plaintiffs entire Complaint, arguing that she has failed to plead a plausible claim under the EPA.

         Each side has filed memoranda supporting their respective positions. The Court will dispense with oral argument because the facts and legal contentions are adequately presented in the materials before the Court, and oral argument would not aid in the decisional process. E.D. Va. Loc. Civ. R. 7(J).

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny Defendants' Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         As required by Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court assumes Plaintiffs well-pleaded allegations to be true and views all facts in the light most favorable to her. T.G. Slater & Son v. Donald P. & Patricia A. Brennan LLC, 385 F.3d 836, 841 (4th Cir. 2004) (citing Mylan Labs, Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993)). At this stage, the Court's analysis is both informed and constrained by the four corners of Plaintiff s First Amended Complaint ("F.A.C.").[1] Viewed through this lens, the facts are as follows.

         Plaintiff earned her Master's degree in Social Work in 1992 and received her Ph.D. in Sociology in 2005, both from Howard University. (F.A.C. ¶ 36, ECF No. 19-1.) Since August 2008, Plaintiff has been employed at VSU. (Id. ¶ 37.) VSU initially hired her as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Criminal Justice, and promoted her in 2010 to the rank of Associate Professor, a position she currently holds. (Id.) Plaintiff is presently a member of both the Undergraduate and Graduate faculty and is qualified to teach at the graduate level, mentor, and sit on and advise thesis and dissertation committees both within the University and as an external reviewer/advisor for other institutions. (Id. ¶ 39.)

         VSU utilizes a standard Employee Work Profile ("EWP"), which establishes a common core of responsibilities for all faculty members. (Id. ¶ 14.) As part of this common core of tasks, faculty members must: "prepare syllabi which reflect course objectives; prepare lessons, activities, and lectures that serve to impart knowledge to students; instruct their students through the use of varying pedagogical methods, such as lectures, technology, practical classroom experiences, group discussion, and media; keep track of whether students are retaining knowledge and meeting the objectives and outcomes of the course through exams, projects, presentations, practical experiences, writing assignments, group work, service, and other activities; manage classroom dynamics; assist students with course material; advise majors; maintain office hours; provide feedback on assignments; input... midterm and final grades; and attend contractually-mandated functions." (Id. ¶ 26.)

         In order to fulfill their teaching responsibilities, faculty members are required to: "study and prepare for class presentations and lectures; present their subject in an interesting and challenging manner; engage in class discussions; prepare tests and exams that fairly cover the subject taught; promptly grade tests and exams; and maintain regular office hours for student consultation and assistance." (Id. ¶ 28.) Plaintiff contends that these skills are required of all faculty members, regardless of academic department, discipline, or sex. (Id. ¶¶ 31-32.)

         Within this context, it appears that Plaintiff has had a noteworthy career while at VS U.She "has consistently achieved ranks of 'outstanding' in the areas of teaching and service, and ranks of'outstanding' and 'noteworthy' in scholarship." (Id. ¶ 37; see also id. ¶ 47 (outlining Plaintiffs research, scholarship, and service efforts); F.A.C. Ex. C, ECF No. 19-4 (Plaintiffs CV).) Plaintiff "has also received [ranks of] 'outstanding' in all categories in Faculty evaluations." (F.A.C. ¶ 37.) Moreover, she has earned this reputation all while teaching a full course load of at least five classes each semester, with each consistently filled close to or at capacity. (See Id. ¶¶ 40-44.)

         Having this reputation amongst her colleagues and within the scope of serving as the Faculty Senate Chair, Plaintiff approached then-VSU President Dr. Keith T. Miller in early 2012 to discuss gender equity at the University. (Id. ¶ 83.) Dr. Miller gave Plaintiff permission to research the issue. (Id.) As a result, Plaintiff chaired a six-member organization called "The Gender Equity Task Force" (the "Task Force") and presented its findings to the full Administrative Cabinet in the Spring 2012 semester. (Id.) At the presentation, Plaintiff warned the VSU Administration about the University's potential liability under the EPA, suggested hiring a Vice President or Ombudsman for Equity, and made further recommendations for addressing disparate pay. (Id.) Later, in September 2012, Plaintiff spoke with Board of Visitors member Terone Green about the Task Force's findings. (Id. ¶ 90.) The VSU Administration ultimately declined to follow the Task Force's recommendations. (Id. ¶ 85.)

         After attending Plaintiffs Task Force presentation, Provost Weldon Hill referred to her as a "trouble maker" to other colleagues. (Id. ¶ 89.) And soon after making these comments, in May 2012, Provost Hill intentionally delayed signing Plaintiffs paperwork for her Summer School pay, which resulted in a delay of receiving payment and caused Plaintiff significant financial hardship. (Id. ¶ 91.) Later that year, in December 2012- after Plaintiff spoke with Green-Provost Hill again "refused to sign [Plaintiffs timesheet] and instead lied to [her] about having already signed it in order for her to get paid." (Id. ¶ 92.) Plaintiff eventually received her paycheck three pay periods later, on January 15, 2013. (Id.) "This delay caused financial hardship and a 30-day credit delinquency." (Id.) Plaintiff asserts that both payment delays were the result of Provost Hill's retaliatory animus against her for making the Task Force presentation. (Id.)

         In May 2013, Plaintiff gave one of her students a failing grade in her Sociological Theory class. (Id. ¶ 97.) After the student complained about Plaintiffs failure to give an "incomplete" or a passing grade that was undeserved, the Provosf s Office encouraged her to file a formal discrimination complaint with the Office for Civil Rights.[2] (Id.) The University's EEOC Director and University Counsel refused to represent Plaintiff in the matter. (Id. ¶ 98.) This forced Plaintiff to go through a lengthy and intense investigatory process, which required her to negotiate directly with the Office for Civil Rights without any support from VSU. (Id.) Plaintiff contends that VSU's actions "served to undermine her reputation and character and caused [her] a great deal of stress and duress" throughout the two-month investigation. (Id.) Plaintiff concludes that this "targeting ... was motivated by retaliatory animus against [her] for having" made the Task Force presentation. (Id.)

         Roughly two months later, on July 30, 2013, Plaintiff sent a lengthy message to Provost Hill and several other members of the Administration complaining about the lack of security of faculty members' tenure and promotion dossiers. (Id. ¶ 93.) After a heated exchange between Plaintiff and Provost Hill, Provost Hill said, "[B]ecause of the stage that's been set over the last two years[i]n this environment of heightened tension and with your own background ... you're as sensitive to the human condition as anyone.... A wise person taught me a long, long time ago, that, 'If you get dragged into a game you do not wish to play, then play the end-game.'" (Id. ¶ 96; id. Ex. A, at 22, ECF No. 19-2.) Plaintiff took this statement to be a veiled threat that if she continued to voice concerns about Provost Hill and the Administration, she could expect further reprisal. (F.A.C. ¶ 96.) In response to the "escalating patterns of retaliation, " Plaintiff applied to teach abroad in China for the Fall 2013 semester. (Id. ¶ 99.)

         In November 2013, while teaching in China, Plaintiff discovered that Provost Hill had denied her request to teach an overload course at Fort Lee, for which she received additional compensation. (Id. ¶ 100.) After contesting the denial and confronting Provost Hill, the course was eventually reinstated. (Id.) Several months later Provost Hill told Plaintiff in a February 2014 email that "[i]t is nearly impossible to get people to improve upon what we have by simply looking in the mirror... Instead we have to be consumed with protecting ourselves or competing for different jobs because of the pervasive personal attacks, animus, disdain, and hatred amongst us all...." (Id. ¶ 101 (emphasis removed, ellipses in original).) Plaintiff claims that this is a clear reference to her complaints about gender-based pay inequities at VSU and an admission that Provost Hill harbored retaliatory animus against her. (Id.)

         In April 2014, VSU created two new Associate Professor positions in the Departments of Doctoral Studies and Mass. Communication. (Id. ¶¶ 102, 103.) The VSU Administration unilaterally filled these newly created vacancies with two former Administration members, Michael Shackleford and Cortez Dial. (Id.) Shackleford and Dial received these appointments despite the fact that neither had a terminal degree in their respective fields of instruction, neither had four years teaching experience at the University level at the rank of Assistant Professor or higher, and neither had other experience that would qualify them to perform at the Associate Professor level.[3] (Id.; see also Id. ¶¶ 52-57, 63, 67-74, 76 (describing Shackleford and Dial's qualifications and experience).)

         At the time of these new hires, Plaintiff was earning a salary of $70, 400 per academic year.[4] (Id. ¶ 49.) Despite Shackleford and Dial's apparent lack of requisite experience and qualifications to be Associate Professors, they received starting salaries of $119, 734 and $105, 446 per academic year, respectively-more than any other female faculty member at VSU with the same or higher rank.[5] (Id. ¶¶ 102, 103.)

         And so, on July 25, 2014, Plaintiff sent an email to Dr. Miller and Provost Hill requesting an increase in her salary "in order to equalize her pay to that of male professors performing substantially equal work as her." (Id. ¶ 104.) While arguing that her request was made based on her own qualifications, she reiterated the Task Force's findings and recommendations by noting that her "male counterparts who have joined the ranks of faculty with less experience in teaching and research in the disciplines to which they have been assigned, " which she contends constitutes further evidence of salary disparities between male and female faculty members at VSU. (Id.) She sent a number of follow-up emails to various members of the VSU Administration restating her interest in a pay raise and asserting that denying her request would be a violation of the EPA when viewed within the context of the Shackleford and Dial hires. (Id. ¶¶ 105-108.) On September 12, 2014, Provost Hill denied Plaintiffs request for a salary adjustment, despite the fact that her request was supported by her Department Chair, Dr. Joyce Edwards. (Id. ¶ 109.)

         Undeterred, Plaintiff notified the VSU Board of Visitors of her request for a salary adjustment on September 13, 2014, and again included information regarding her belief that Shackleford and Dial's pay rate reflected gender discrimination in violation of the EPA. (Id. ¶ 110.) Ultimately, the VSU Board of Visitors approves faculty[6] salaries after reviewing the President's recommendation. (Id. ¶ 8.) This determination is based upon rank and experience, not departmental affiliation or subject matter taught.[7] (Id. ¶ 10.)

         After review, the Board of Visitors also declined to approve Plaintiffs request. (Id. ¶ 110.)

         In response, Spencer filed a formal charge of discrimination and retaliation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on April 13, 2015. (Id. ΒΆ 111.) And on May 22, 2015, Plaintiff filed her initial EPA Complaint against VSU, the . current iteration of which names Shackleford and Dial as comparators under the Act for discrimination ...

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