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Dragulescu v. Virginia Union University

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

May 15, 2017

LUMINITA DRAGULESCU, Ph.D., Plaintiff,
v.
VIRGINIA UNION UNIVERSITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Robert E. Payne Senior United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on DEFENDANT VIRGINIA UNION UNIVERSITY'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (ECF No. 70). By the ORDER of May 11, 2017 (ECF No. 149), the Defendant's Motion was granted in part and denied in part. The reasons for that Order are set forth below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Virginia Union University (VUU) is an historically black college and university (HBCU). In 2012, Luminita Dragulescu, a white female, was hired to be an Assistant Professor of English in the Department of Languages and Literature ("L&L") of VUU's School of Humanities and Social Sciences ("SHSS"). She served in that position from 2012 to 2015, accepting renewed one-year offers of employment each year during that time. On March 24, 2016, Dragulescu received notice that her contract would not be renewed for the following term.

         Dragulescu alleges that the decision not to renew her contract, as well as a reprimand that she received in 2015, was racially motivated in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 (a) (1) . VUU has moved for summary judgment on both claims. In evaluating VUU's motion, the Court must view any disputed "facts and all justifiable inferences arising therefrom in the light most favorable" to Dragulescu, the non-moving party. Foster v. Univ. of Maryland-E. Shore, 787 F.3d 243, 246 (4th Cir. 2015).

         A. Facts

         Dragulescu was hired in 2012 by Eveyln Davis (a black female), the chair of the L&L Department at the time. Dragulescu began teaching in the fall of 2012. Almost immediately, VUU began receiving student complaints about her, including one incident in October of 2012 in which nineteen students signed a complaint against her.[1] (Def. Mot., Ex. 8). Although she has not disputed these complaints were made, Dragulescu contends that she was not informed of "virtually all" of them, nor told that they would jeopardize her job security. (Def. Mot. 3, PI. Resp. 3). These complaints notwithstanding, Dragulescu's contract was renewed for the 2013-2014 school term.

         In 2014, issues arose between Dragulescu and Davis. Dragulescu agrees that she was asked to encourage students to participate in "Constitution Day" at VUU and politely refused, that she was instructed to spend two of their office hours each week at the VUU Writing Center and refused to do so, and that she resisted Davis in the process of selecting a common text for English classes. (Def. Mot. 4-5, PI. Resp. 4). Davis eventually responded by issuing Dragulescu a formal reprimand, chastising her for various incidents and expressing the hope that she would "make a genuine attempt to become a better colleague by working with and not against the department." (Def. Mot., Ex. 14).

         Dragulescu believed this reprimand was unwarranted, [2] and sought relief from Linda Schlichting, the outgoing dean of SHSS. Schlichting (a white female) concluded that the reprimand was inappropriate and overly harsh, especially compared to the disciplinary actions taken against other faculty in the past who had committed more serious offenses.[3] (PI. Resp., Ex. 2). Therefore, Schlichting instructed Davis to have the reprimand removed from Dragulescu's file. Id. On March 6, 2014, Davis recommended Dragulescu for non-renewal. (Def. Mot., Ex. 17). Davis was overruled, and Dragulescu's contract was once again renewed, this time for the 2014-2015 term. Around the same time, Davis was promoted to a new position within VUU, Shannan Wilson (a black female) became the new chair, and Michael Orok (a black male) became the new dean of SHSS.

         During the 2014-2015 term, there were more student complaints about Dragulescu. (Def. Mot. 4). She also continued to decline to devote any hours to the Writing Center, Id. Dragulescu maintains that she was not informed of most of the student complaints, and that Writing Center hours had become something less than mandatory by sometime in the spring of 2014. (P1. Resp. 5).

         In January of 2015, Dragulescu procured on behalf of VUU and the SHSS a substantial grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities ("NEH"). Orok's personal assistant, Tracy Lucas (a black female), was placed in charge of administering the grant funds within SHSS. Around this same time, Dragulescu received an invitation to present one of her papers at a conference at Oxford, and began seeking funding for the trip. At some point in March of 2015, Orok informed Dragulescu that he hoped to be able to contribute $200 towards her trip.

         In April of 2015, the SHSS conducted a search for a new history professor. Dr. Raymond Hylton (a white male professor) emailed Orok seeking to be the chairperson of the search committee for the position, and requested that Dragulescu and several others be on the committee. The overall composition of the committee requested by Hylton would have included four white professors (including Dragulescu) and two black professors. In response to the request, Lucas emailed Orok directly, stating that "Dr. Dragulescu is a no-no because you need to split her and Hylton up." (Pi. Resp., Ex. 13). She also requested that Orok "throw some different people up in there; mainly African Americans, " and offered her own suggestions. Id. Orok did not respond to the Lucas email, but he ultimately organized a committee that had four black professors and two white professor (and did not include Dragulescu). Dragulescu cites this sequence of events as part of the evidence of Orok's racial animus towards white individuals.

         On April 30, 2015, Terry Hinton, then a professor at VUU, claims to have had a conversation with Orok in which Orok stated that Dragulescu was having an affair with Hylton, that her office "smelled like feet, ass, and sex, " and that he considered Dragulescu nothing but a "white trailer trash whore." (Def. Mot., Ex. 57). Orok denies ever making these statements, but Hinton claims that he wrote down the quotations at the time. Id. He also claims that, at some point in 2016, he destroyed his handwritten notes after preserving in electronic form. (Def. Mot., Ex. 58). Hinton was terminated for cause by VUU, sued it for discrimination in response, and accepted a lifetime ban from the campus as part of the settlement in that action. (Def. Mot., Exs. 56, 58).

         Less than a week after this alleged incident, on May 4, 2015, Orok held a meeting with Dragulescu and Wilson to discuss a recent student complaint. On May 1, 2015, Dragulescu had returned a paper to a student that included comments such as "that's a ridiculous statement How could you support it?!!"; "This shows your ignorance on the topic!"; "Please revise this for logic!!"; "You just state the obvious!"; "You obviously don't know what climax of a narrative is!"; "You don't seem to have heard anything I talked to you!!" (Def. Mot., Ex. 21). The student had become upset at these comments, and he and his mother had complained to his faculty advisor, Julie Malloy (a white female). Malloy immediately alerted Wilson and Orok, who promptly requested a meeting with Dragulescu to discuss the matter.

         At the meeting, Orok and Wilson spoke with Dragulescu about the incident, assured her that they did not believe she intended her editorial comments to be offensive in any way to the student, and requested[4] that Dragulescu apologize to the student and her mother for the misunderstanding. (Def. Mot. 7, Pi. Resp. 5-7) . Orok also explained that VUU was an HBCU, and allegedly suggested that Dragulescu did not perceive why her comments had offended the student because she did not understand black culture and the impact that such language would have coming from a white professor to a black student at an HBCU. (PI. Br. 6). The parties agree that Orok did not expressly order Dragulescu to apologize, nor tell her that her job would be in any jeopardy if she refused. Id. Dragulescu declined to apologize.

         Almost immediately after the meeting, Dragulescu received an email from Lucas (on Orok's behalf) informing her that the $200 Orok had previously pledged towards her Oxford trip would not be available. Then, the next day, Dragulescu received a written reprimand from Orok ("Orok Reprimand") that she now alleges constitutes an independent adverse action under Title

         VII.

         The Orok Reprimand focused on the incident with the student's paper, but also "recognize[ed] that this was not the first time that students complained about your aberrant and negative behavior in the class." (Def. Mot., Ex. 24). In the document, Orok warned Dragulescu that the "refusal to follow my instructions is inappropriate and amounts to insubordination, [sic] subsequent actions such as this will not be tolerated." Id. The reprimand also counseled Dragulescu that her "continuous refusal to follow administrative directions is professionally irresponsible and may lead to additional personnel actions." Id. Following VUU's prescribed procedure, Dragulescu initiated a formal grievance in response.

         On May 5, 2015, Wilson formally recommended that Dragulescu's contract not be renewed. Wilson's recommendation cited concerns about Dragulescu's interactions with students and her refusal to comply with the suggestions of superiors. (Def. Mot., Ex. 26). Orok responded by requesting further documentation of Wilson's concerns. (Def. Mot. 8). Wilson provided Orok with various student complaints, as well as documentation of Dragulescu's interactions with Davis (including the reprimand Schlichting had ordered rescinded). Id. Orok concurred with Wilson, and issued his own recommendation that Dragulescu's contract not be renewed. (Def. Mot., Ex. 27). Dragulescu contends that several of the complaints ultimately included in this process were specifically solicited by Wilson from students. (PI. Resp. 13).

         The parties dispute how VUU leadership responded to the Orok and Wilson recommendations, but both sides agree that Dragulescu's contract was ultimately renewed for the 2015-2016 term. VUU President Claude Perkins explained that he wished to give Dragulescu another opportunity to improve, (Def. Mot., Ex. 28), but Dragulescu contends that she was renewed only because any contrary decision would have violated an internal VUU policy to give 45 days notice before any non-renewal decision. Dragulescu also claims ...


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