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Strickland v. State of Washington Seattle Central College

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

December 31, 2019

DEDRA STRICKLAND, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE OF WASHINGTON SEATTLE CENTRAL COLLEGE, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          JAMES L. ROBART, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Before the court is Defendant State of Washington Seattle Central College's (“Seattle Central” or “the College”) motion for summary judgment. (MSJ (Dkt. # 35).) Initially, the motion applied to all Defendants[1] and all of Plaintiff Dedra Strickland's claims. (See id.) However, on December 9, 2019, the court entered a stipulated order dismissing Individual Defendants, as well as Ms. Strickland's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims. (Stip. Order (Dkt. # 41).) The December 9, 2019, order rendered certain portions of Seattle Central's summary judgment motion moot.[2] Accordingly, the court addresses only those portions of the motion that pertain to Ms. Strickland's remaining claims against Seattle Central.[3] The court has considered Seattle Central's motion, the parties' submissions in support of and in opposition to the motion, the applicable law, and the relevant portions of the record. Being fully advised, the court GRANTS Seattle Central's motion and enters summary judgment in its favor on all of Ms. Strickland's remaining claims.[4]

         II. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Strickland is an African-American woman with Native American roots. (Strickland Decl. (Dkt. # 37) ¶ 28.) Seattle Central hired Ms. Strickland in April 2008. (Foster-Brown Decl. (Dkt. # 35-2) ¶ 3, Ex. 2 (“Strickland Dep.”) at 26:9-13, 26:25-27:9.) Ms. Strickland worked in the College's Career Services Center as a Program Coordinator until she resigned in February 2018. (Compl. (Dkt. # 1) ¶ 5.1; Strickland Decl. ¶ 60 (“I did not resign until February 2018.”).) David Skogerboe, as the Career Services Supervisor, supervised Ms. Strickland in her role as a Program Coordinator. (Foster-Brown Decl. ¶ 4, Ex. 3 (attaching the College's organizational chart).)

         In 2016, Mr. Skogerboe resigned from his position as Career Services Supervisor. (See Strickland Decl. ¶ 18.) During an August 2016, staff meeting, Ms. Strickland asked Brigid McDevitt, Dean of Student Resources, and Mr. Skogerboe if she could be appointed the interim Career Services Supervisor while the College conducted a search for Mr. Skogerboe's replacement. (See Id. ¶¶ 18-20; see also Strickland Dep. at 82:6-12; 84:17-85:16.) Ms. McDevitt responded that the College had never appointed an interim Career Services Supervisor and she doubted that it would do so now, but she advised Ms. Strickland that Ms. Strickland could apply for the permanent position when it was posted. (See Strickland Decl. ¶¶ 19-21; Strickland Dep. at 85:7-16; 86:1-3.) Ms. Strickland, however, recalls that Kristen Davey had said that she had previously served as interim Career Services Supervisor. (Strickland Decl. ¶ 20.) Further, because the staff meeting was held in an open area of the Career Services Center, Ms. Strickland felt “humiliated” when she was told she would not be appointed as interim Career Services Supervisor. (Id. ¶ 26, Exs. E, F.) Accordingly, Ms. Strickland filed a grievance with her union, which recommended training for Ms. McDevitt and that Ms. McDevitt provide a written apology to Ms. Strickland. (See id.) Ms. Strickland attests that despite not being appointed the interim Career Services Supervisor, she nevertheless continued to perform the job duties of that position. (Id. ¶ 21.) In late September or early October 2016, Ms. Strickland formally applied for the Career Services Supervisor position. (Id. ¶¶ 22-24.)

         Prior to Mr. Skogerboe's departure from Seattle Central, Ms. McDevitt asked him to create a job description for his position and to organize a hiring committee to search for his replacement. (McDevitt Decl. (Dkt. # 35-5) ¶ 6.)[5] Ms. Strickland complained to Ms. McDevitt that Mr. Skogerboe should not take part in forming the hiring committee that would interview candidates for his position. (Strickland Decl. ¶ 42.) Ultimately, Mr. Skogerboe did not form the hiring committee; instead, Ms. McDevitt formed the committee. (McDevitt Decl. ¶ 8.)

         Ms. McDevitt attests that it is her standard practice to chair a hiring committee for a director or manager within her area, but she decided not to do so for the Career Services Supervisor position because she felt that Ms. Strickland would not believe that she was impartial. (Id. ¶ 9.) After asking several individuals who declined to serve as chair, Ms. McDevitt asked Jessica Norouzi, who agreed to serve as the chair of the hiring committee. (Id. ¶¶ 10-11.) Ms. Norouzi informed Ms. McDermitt that she had previously worked with Brian Kenney, who was one of the applicants for the position. (Id. ¶ 14.)

         There were four panelists on the hiring committee. (Norouzi Decl. (Dkt. # 35-6) ¶ 3.) In addition to Ms. Norouzi, who served as the chair, the panel consisted of Kelli Adams, Crystina Mostad, and Claire Makens. (Chen Decl. (Dkt. # 35-4) ¶ 14, Ex. 1 (attaching Seattle College District HR Investigation Report) at 6.)[6] The panelists were all women, and one of the panelists identified as a person of color. (Id. ¶ 9.) The role of the committee was to screen candidates that the committee believed were qualified for the Career services Supervisor position and then recommend candidates to the hiring authority-in this case, Yoshiko Harden, VP of Student Services-who would ultimately make the final hiring decision. (Norouzi Decl. ¶¶ 4-5.)

         Ms. Strickland asserts that Career Services Supervisor position required “a master's degree in Education or Public Administration, knowledge of the Community College System, teaching experience, proficiency in Washington State Occupational Information System (WOIS), Dependable Strengths and Myers Briggs assessment tools.” (Strickland Decl. ¶ 24.) However, as Seattle Central points out, these are merely “preferred qualifications” and not part of the “required education, experience and abilities” listed in job posting, which is attached to Ms. Strickland's declaration. (See Id. ¶ 24, Ex. D at 3.) Indeed, the job posting stated that the position did not require a master's degree but only a “Bachelor's Degree OR any combination of relevant education, training and experience that indicates successful performance of the essential functions of the position.” (Id.)

         As noted above, a former co-worker of Ms. Norouzi, Brian Kenney, applied for the position. (Id. ¶ 7.) Ms. Norouzi disclosed her former affiliation with Mr. Kenney to the other panelists on the hiring committee. (Id.; Mostad Decl. (Dkt. # 35-3) ¶ 8).) Ms. Norouzi stated her belief that Mr. Kenney met the minimum qualifications for an interview with the committee, but also indicated that the committee as a whole needed to decide whether Mr. Kenney was offered an interview based on the committee's rating rubric. (Norouzi Decl. ¶ 7.) Ultimately, the committee determined that Mr. Kenney met the requirements for the position and should be offered an interview. (Id.) Mr. Kenney is Caucasian and, at the time of the interview, was 37 years old. (Strickland Decl. ¶ 28.)

         Ms. Norouzi also told the panelists on the hiring committee that she was excited that-with Ms. Strickland's application-they had an internal candidate of color in the applicant pool. (Norouzi Decl. ¶ 8.) The hiring committee did not allot bonus points to internal candidates. (See Chen Decl. ¶ 14, Ex. 1 at 7; see also Strickland Decl. ¶ 43 (“There was nothing in my scoring to note that I was an internal candidate.”).) Nevertheless, Ms. Norouzi stated that she believed the committee needed to prioritize Ms. Strickland as a candidate. (Norouzi Decl. ¶ 8.) Ms. Norouzi explained that she “fundamentally felt that it [was] to the institution's benefit to elevate candidates of color, particularly those who [we]re internal [to the College], if they ha[d] the skills needed to succeed in the roles they [we]re seeking.” (Norouzi Decl. ¶ 8). Although the hiring committee did not unanimously select Ms. Strickland for an interview, the hiring committee did give her extra consideration because she was an internal candidate, and the committee did ultimately extended her an interview. (Chen Decl. ¶ 14, Ex. 1 at 7.) At the time of her interview, Ms. Strickland was 56 years old. (Stickland Decl. ¶ 28.)

         For fairness and equity, the hiring committee read the same interview questions to all applicants and provided the same amount of time for each applicant to answer. (Mostad Decl. ¶ 7.) Ms. Norouzi attests that Ms. Strickland provided responses during her interview “that did not convey her qualifications or enthusiasm for the role.” (Norouzi Decl. ¶ 9.) Ms. Norouzi attests that, despite her encouragement, Ms. Strickland failed to “share experience [sic] that were relevant to the job she was applying for.” (Id. ¶ 11.) Ultimately, the hiring committee concluded that Ms. Strickland was not qualified for the position. (See Mostad Decl. ¶ 5.) Ms. Strickland disputes Ms. Norouzi's description of her interview. (See Strickland Decl. ¶¶ 32, 34-39.) Ms. Strickland believes that she did not limit her responses as Ms. Norouzi describes and believes that Ms. Norouzi confused her with someone else. (See id.)

         Mr. Kenney was the final candidate interviewed by the hiring committee. (Norouzi Decl. ¶ 16.) Ms. Norouzi did not actively participate in Mr. Kenney's interview. (See Id. ¶ 16 (“I reminded the committee that I knew the candidate, therefore, I would be sitting silent for the interview, and asked them to lead by asking our predetermined questions.”); see also Mostad Decl. ¶ 8 (“At no time did Jesica Norouzi seek to influence the panelist [sic] in favor or disfavor towards hiring [Mr.] Kenney.”).)[7]At the end of the interview process, the hiring committee determined that Mr. Kenney was the only candidate that they should recommend to the hiring authority, Ms. Harden. (Norouzi Decl. ¶¶ 17-18; Mostad Decl. ¶ 9 (“Following discussion concerning each candidate for the position, the panel unanimously agreed Brian Kenney was the only qualified individual for the Career Services Supervisor position. Therefore, his was the only applications [sic] moved forward . . . .”).) Mr. Kenney out scored all other candidates, and Ms. Strickland's scores were among the lower ranks.[8] (Chen Decl. ¶ 10.) Ultimately, Ms. Harden met with Mr. Kenney and decided to hire him.[9] (Norouzi Decl. ¶ 19.) Ms. Strickland “believe[s] that she was not afforded a fair and equal opportunity to apply for the position . . . because of [her] age, race[, ] and sex.” (Strickland Decl. ¶ 27.)

         Ms. Strickland also argues that she “engaged in a number of protected activities” by “attempting to address health and safety concerns in Career Services, using the grievance process available to her through the [Collective Bargaining Agreement], ” and “trying to gain promotion and the related pay to the position that she was doing for the [C]ollege on an interim basis.” (Resp. at 17.) She states that she “made numerous complaints about the discriminatory, retaliatory hostile working environment actions of . . . [D]efendants. . . . [and] about numerous safety and security concerns that placed [her] life and others at risk.” (Id. ¶ 29.) However, she provides few testimonial specifics. (See generally id.) She references generalized “harass[ment] and bullying” in connection with obtaining her signature on a job description. (See Id. ¶ 29, Ex. G.) She also states that she did not receive an evaluation for three years and believes that she was entitled to more frequent evaluations to support her efforts to obtain a promotion. (Id. ¶ 49.) She also requested a copy of her personnel file and discovered that it contained “none of [her] credentials”-even those paid for by Seattle Central. (Id.) She states that someone “gained access” to her personal information and anonymously sent her a DVD entitled “Men in Grief” through the inner office mail. (Id. ¶ 51.) She returned the DVD to the library, but the librarians would not disclose any information about who checked out the DVD. (Id.) Finally, she attests that she was “treated differently and unfairly” because the front desk at the Career Center was left unattended while she “was behind closed doors with the student.” (Id. ¶¶ 53-54.)

         Prior to applying for the Career Services Supervisor position, Ms. Strickland began seeing Dr. Michael Kane for what he describes as “family issues, regarding family relationship.” (Foster-Brown Decl. (Dkt. # 35-2) ¶ 2, Ex. 1 (“Kane Dep.”) at 23:22-24:1.) However, during 2017, Dr. Kane determined that Ms. Strickland needed “ to have an extended period away from her employment. (Strickland Decl. ¶ 58, Ex. M.) On February 2, 2018, Dr. Kane authorized “Ms. Strickland to return to work on February 5, 2018, and resume her job-related duties.” (Foster-Brown Decl. ¶ 5, Ex. 4.)

         On February 5, 2018, Ms. Strickland sent a letter to Seattle Central resigning her position. (Id. ¶ 6, Ex. 5.) She states in her letter that she “enjoyed working in the career services center for nine years . . . .” (Id.) However, she attests that she “chose to leave [her] employment because . . . the work environment had become increasingly more hostile than before.” (Strickland Decl. ¶ 56.) She states that she asked for an investigation into the DVD issue and the apparent compromise of her personal information but did not get one, was humiliated when she was asked to supervise interns until a supervisor was selected, and was falsely accused by Mr. Kenney of creating a “hostile work environment.” (Id.) She did not understand why she was asked to train Mr. Kenney if he possessed the qualifications for the job. (Id. ¶ 57.) Ultimately, she found her work environment “so untenable” that she no longer “want[ed] to stay” in such a “tense, hostile working environment.” (Id. ¶ 57.)

         On July 20, 2018, Ms. Strickland filed suit against Seattle Central and Individual Defendants. (See Compl.) She alleged claims for (1) race and sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Washington Law Against Discrimination (“WLAD”), RCW 49.60, et seq., (2) age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq., (3) civil right violations against all of the individual defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and (4) retaliation in violation of Title VII and WLAD. (See generally id.) On November 12, 2019, Seattle Central and Individual Defendants moved for summary judgment on all of Ms. Strickland's claims. (See generally MSJ.) On December 9, 2019, the court entered a stipulated ...


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