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Liggett v. Washington State University

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

February 26, 2014

TONDA LIGGETT, Plaintiff,
v.
WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY, ELSON FLOYD; WARWICK BAYLY; KAREN SCHMALING; A.G. RUD; GISELA ERNST-SLAVIT; DAVID SLAVIT; and BRUCE ROMANISH, Defendant.

ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

ROBERT J. BRYAN, District Judge.

This matter comes before the court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 32). The court has considered the pleadings filed in support of and in opposition to the motion and the file herein.

RELEVANT FACTS

In 2006, Washington State University (WSU) hired plaintiff as a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Education at the Vancouver campus. Dkt. 37-1; Dkt. 39 at 1. The parties agree that plaintiff's progress towards tenure was evaluated annually, with intensive review in her third and sixth years of employment. Dkt. 37-1; Dkt. 41-7; Dkt. 41-9. Plaintiff contends that defendants Slavit, Ernst-Slavit, Romanish, Rud, and Schmaling were aware of plaintiff's sexual orientation as a lesbian at all material times. Dkt. 41-1 at 3; Dkt. 41-2 at 4; Dkt. 41-3 at 14; Dkt. 41-4 at 3, 5.

Standards for WSU Tenure-Track Professors

Criteria for tenure-track assistant professors at WSU includes teaching and advising college and graduate students, continuing research, publishing in high quality peer-reviewed journals and other relevant publications, and presenting at national and international peer-reviewed professional conferences. Dkt. 37-3; Dkt. 41-11. Progress Toward Tenure Reviews (PTTRs) are given to tenure-track professors in the first, second, fourth, and fifth years. Dkt. 37 at 3; Dkt 41-7. WSU reviews the professor's full portfolio in the third and sixth years; such reviews involve recommendations from several individuals. Dkt. 37 at 3; Dkt. 41-8, 47-13.

According to the Tenure and Promotion Handbook provided by both parties, the final portfolio review in the sixth year includes letters from at least five external evaluators who are peers from other universities in the candidate's field. Dkt. 37-3; Dkt. 41-11. After reviewing such letters, tenured faculty in the candidate's department review the sixth-year tenure portfolios and make recommendations (or "votes, " using the handbook's language) with supporting rationale why a candidate should or should not be tenured. Dkt. 37-3; Dkt. 41-11. The department chair then submits his or her own recommendation and summarizes the faculty recommendations to the College of Education Faculty Affairs Committee (CEFAC). Dkt. 37-3; Dkt. 41-11. The CEFAC then provides a recommendation and forwards the information to the College Dean. Dkt. 37-3; Dkt. 41-11. The College Dean and the campus Vice Chancellor then concurrently make their recommendations to the Provost, who makes the final decision based on all the previous recommendations and comments. Dkt. 37-3; Dkt. 41-11.

Plaintiff's Tenure Review Process

Plaintiff's cumulative progress toward tenure and promotion was reviewed annually by the Department Chair for the College of Education, the Dean of the College, the Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, the Director of Education for the Vancouver campus, and the faculty of the College. Dkt. XX-X-XX-XX; Dkt. 41-11. The reviews monitored progress in three areas: research and publications, teaching, and service to the college and professional community. Dkt. 37-3; Dkt. 41-11. Plaintiff contends that, between her reviews, she received guidance and counseling from her mentor committee of tenured faculty, which included defendant Dr. Gisela Ernst-Slavit. Dkt. 42 at 2, Dkt. 41-17. In 2007 and 2008, plaintiff received the highest rating of "satisfactory" on her PTTRs. Dkt. XX-X-XX-X, Dkt. 41-7 at 1-4.

Third-Year Annual Review

Plaintiff's 2009 PTTRs were rated between "satisfactory" and "needs improvement, " with one "unsatisfactory" rating; approximately half of the tenured faculty rated plaintiff as "satisfactory." Dkt. 37-10; Dkt. 41-13. The unsatisfactory rating concerned whether to count plaintiff's under-review work as completed publications. Dkt. 37-10, 37-11; Dkt. 41-13 at 22-23. In the comments of such reviews, tenured faculty seemed to agree that plaintiff met expectations in the areas of teaching and service, but some comments advised plaintiff to focus on publishing more research, particularly to publishing in well-regarded publications. Dkt. 37-10; Dkt. 41-13.

Fourth and Fifth Year Annual Reviews

Plaintiff received a "satisfactory" rating for her 2010 PTTR, and again some faculty members suggested that plaintiff "should focus on top-tier journals in her field as outlets for her scholarship." Dkt. 37-12; Dkt. 41-7 at 5-6. In April 2011, Plaintiff received a "satisfactory" rating on her tenure review. Dkt. 37-13; Dkt. 41-7 at 7-8. The review recommended that plaintiff continue to work on her teaching, target top-tier journals for publication venues, and identify avenues for contributing both within her program and within the larger campus. Id . Final Year Annual Review

When the Tenure and Promotion Review Committee met in late 2011 to discuss tenure candidates' qualifications and materials, the majority of the faculty, the Department Chair, and all eight external reviewers supported plaintiff's candidacy for tenure. Dkt. 37-17, 37-14; Dkt. 41-18. Both the Director of Education for the Vancouver campus and the College of Education Chairwoman voted in favor of tenure. Id. The overall committee vote was 17 to 3 in favor of tenure. Dkt. 37-14; Dkt. 41-18. The three individuals who recommended denial of plaintiff's tenure were defendants Ernst-Slavit, Slavit, and Romanish. Id. While defendants Ernst-Slavit and Slavit expressed misgivings about the areas of teaching, service, and scholarship, defendant Romanish focused on the area of scholarship as lacking but also mentioned an account about a possible teaching deficiency. Id. Their primary comments were that plaintiff had not published in top-tier journals and that her publications appeared to be reiterations of her dissertation, rather than new research contributing to the field. Id.

The CEFAC was unable to reach a recommendation upon review of plaintiff's portfolio, although CEFAC made a recommendation in every other case it was presented that year. Dkt. 37-16; Dkt. 41-12. CEFAC expressed concerns about plaintiff's research productivity, and noted the positive reviews of the external recommenders. Id.

On October 31, 2011, defendants Rud and Schmaling recommended that plaintiff's application for tenure be denied. Dkt. 37-17; Dkt. 41-8 at 4-8. Both Rud and Schmaling found her qualifications in teaching and service above expectations, but found her scholarship to be underdeveloped. Id. Defendant Rud noted that the lack of new research along with a low quantity of publications was the detrimental combination that led him to recommend denial. Id. Defendant Schmaling commented that, of plaintiff's seven publications, three were interviews, and approximately four overlapped in substance and topic with one another, in addition to overlap with her dissertation. Id. Both defendants Rud and Schmaling noted that the tenure guidelines provide that "the greatest emphasis" in tenure applications is on "consistent, sustained, and significant" scholarship. Id.

Defendant Dr. Bayly decided to deny plaintiff's tenure based on the submitted tenure materials because (1) plaintiff did not sufficiently address the concerns raised in her third year review regarding more publications in general and in top-tier journals, and (2) the negative recommendations in combination with several lukewarm positive recommendations. Dkt. 37. Defendant contends that Dr. Bayly was unaware that plaintiff identified as lesbian at the time he made her tenure decision. Dkt. 37. It is uncontested that, on March 1, 2012, defendant Dr. Bayly notified plaintiff of the denial of tenure and promotion, and of the termination of her faculty appointment and the end of the 2012-2013 academic year. Dkt. 1 at 10; Dkt. 37-19.

Appeal to the President of WSU

On March 30, 2012, plaintiff appealed her denial of tenure to defendant Floyd, President of WSU. Dkt. 33-2; Dkt. 41-22. On June 7, 2012, Defendant Floyd denied the appeal, which was purely based on procedural errors, after considering the recommendation of the Faculty Status Committee to deny. Id.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On March 3, 2013, plaintiff filed this suit against defendants, alleging violations of Equal Protection (42 U.S.C. § 1983), Gender Discrimination under Title VII (42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. ), and Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) (RCW 49.60.010, RCW 49.60.030). Dkt. 1 at 10-14. Plaintiff alleges that the University, as well as ...


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