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Yul Chu v. Mississippi State University and Board of Trustees

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

January 31, 2014

DR. YUL CHU, PLAINTIFF
v.
MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY and BOARD OF TRUSTEES, INSTITUTIONS OF HIGHER LEARNING, DEFENDANTS

For Dr. Yul Chu, Plaintiff: Kim Turner Chaze, LEAD ATTORNEY, KIM T. CHAZE, ESQ., Eufaula, AL.

For Mississippi State University, Board of Trustees, Institutions of Higher Learning, Defendants: Joy Wolfe Graves, LEAD ATTORNEY, Charles E. Winfield, PERRY, WINFIELD & WOLFE, PA, Starkville, MS.

OPINION

Page 468

MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

GLEN H. DAVIDSON, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment [111] on Plaintiff's Title VII claim. Upon due consideration, the Court finds Defendants' motion for summary judgment is well taken and should be granted.

Page 469

A. Factual and Procedural Background

In August of 2001, Mississippi State University (" MSU" ) and the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning (the " Board" ) hired Plaintiff Dr. Yul Chu (" Plaintiff'), a native of Korea, as a tenure-track, assistant professor in its Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. In this capacity, Plaintiff worked under a series of one-year employment contracts. In the fall of 2006, in Plaintiff's sixth year of employment at MSU, he applied for tenure and promotion to the position of associate professor.

Before a tenure-track faculty member may apply for tenure at MSU, he or she must complete a five-to-six-year probationary period and satisfy certain academic requirements, which are listed in the Faculty Handbook. During the faculty member's probationary period, he or she undergoes annual reviews. When the faculty member is eligible to apply for tenure, he or she submits a tenure and promotion application with supporting documents for review.

When evaluating a candidate for tenure, reviewers at MSU consider three categories of performance--teaching, research or creative activity (depending on the discipline), and service. Additionally, reviewers consider whether the applicant is excelling in at least one of the three areas of performance.[1] To receive tenure, the applicant must demonstrate satisfactory performance in teaching, research, and service, and excellence in at least one area.

The tenure process at MSU is multi-tiered, and reviews at every level are considered in the final decision. See MSU Policies & Procedures [111-1] at 9-13; Promotion & Tenure Policies & Procedures [111-3] at 6-15.[2] First, elected, tenured faculty members in the tenure applicant's own department sit as a committee to review [3] the application and make a recommendation. Second, the department head conducts a review of the application and then makes a recommendation, followed by the college tenure and promotion committee's review and recommendation, and the college dean's review and recommendation. Next, the provost of MSU reviews all the evaluations and makes a recommendation to the president of MSU, who ultimately decides whether to recommend the candidate to the Board for tenure. If the president recommends tenure, the matter is forwarded to the Board for approval. If the president does not recommend tenure, the candidate may appeal the denial by submitting a request to the provost.

If the candidate appeals the decision, the University Committee on Promotion and Tenure conducts hearings and interviews with the tenure applicant and the parties involved in the tenure review process and then forwards its recommendation to the provost. The provost subsequently forwards the committee's recommendation and his own second recommendation to the president for action. The president acts upon the appeal. If the president recommends tenure, the matter is forwarded to

Page 470

the Board for approval of the grant of tenure. If the president declines to recommend tenure, the appeal is final, absent the applicant's appeal to the Board. Each level of review is independent of the others, and no reviewer is bound by the others' recommendations. Upon a final decision to deny tenure to an applicant, MSU provides the unsuccessful applicant with a terminal, one-year employment contract, after which his employment contract will not be renewed.

In the case sub judice, after Plaintiff filed his application for tenure and promotion, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Promotion and Tenure Committee reviewed his request and voted against recommending him for tenure and promotion. See Dep't Recommendation [111-6]. Thereafter, the head of the department, the college committee, the dean, and the provost successively reviewed Plaintiff's application and similarly did not recommend him for tenure; thereafter, the president likewise did not recommend Plaintiff for tenure. See Recommendations [111-7-111-11].

Plaintiff sought administrative reconsideration of the decision to deny him tenure. His appeal was reviewed by the University Committee on Tenure and Review. Defendants contend that this committee also conducted an investigation into the matter, including interviews of Plaintiff and others involved in the tenure process, Defs.' MSJ [111] at 4, ¶ 19; Plaintiff argues " there was no investigation conducted," Pl.'s Mem. Br. Supp. Resp. to Defs.' MSJ [118] at 1. Defendants maintain that the University Committee on Tenure and Review found no evidence that Plaintiff's application for tenure and promotion had been denied because of his ethnicity, national origin, or race or that the decision on his application was prejudiced, arbitrary, or capricious. Upon review, the university committee, the provost, and the president declined to recommend Plaintiff for tenure. MSU maintains that although Plaintiff had demonstrated satisfactory achievement in the areas of teaching and service, he had failed to demonstrate a research record sufficient for an award of tenure, particularly with respect to publishing and obtaining competitive research funding. Plaintiff argues that the decision to deny tenure was not based on Plaintiff's qualifications, but on his race and national origin.

Plaintiff subsequently appealed the decision to the Board. Defendants maintain that the Board reviewed Plaintiff's request and declined to hold a hearing on the matter. Plaintiff alleges that " [o]n or about May 2, 2007, Plaintiff was informed, words to the effect, that he was terminated from his employment at MSU." Pl.'s Compl. [1] ¶ 9. Subsequently, Plaintiff signed a one-year, nonrenewable contract for the 2007-2008 school year, and accepted employment as an assistant professor at the University of Texas - Pan American where he would earn a greater salary than he earned while employed at MSU. Pl.'s Dep. [111-37] at 12,122.

Plaintiff filed an EEOC charge wherein he alleged that he was denied tenure for discriminatory reasons. See EEOC Charge [1] at 6-10. Upon receipt of his right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, see EEOC Right-to-Sue Letter [1] at 11, he filed this suit against MSU and the Board (collectively, " Defendants" ),[4] claiming he

Page 471

was unlawfully denied tenure and discriminated against due to his race and national origin in violation of Title VII.[5] Plaintiff appears to base his Title VII claim on four main allegations: (1) that MSU failed to apply its anti-discrimination policies and procedures in reaching the tenure decision including conducting an investigation into Plaintiff's allegations of discrimination; (2) that a similarly situated Caucasian assistant professor, Dr. J. W. Bruce, was treated more favorably than Plaintiff; (3) that Plaintiff was not granted tenure even though his qualifications met or exceeded those of other tenure applicants who were granted tenure, particularly Dr. Bruce; and (4) that members of the department mocked Plaintiff's Korean accent.

On September 30, 2013, Defendants filed the present motion for summary judgment [111] on the Title VII claim. Plaintiff filed a response, and Defendants filed a reply. The matter is now ripe for review.

B. Legal Standards

Summary judgment " should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Weaver v. CCA Indus., Inc., 529 F.3d 335, 339 (5th Cir. 2008). The rule " mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a sufficient showing to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548.

The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. Under Rule 56(a), the burden then shifts to the nonmovant to " go beyond the pleadings and by . . . affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (internal quotation marks omitted). Accord Littlefield v. Forney Indep. Sch. Dist., 268 F.3d 275, 282 (5th Cir. 2001); Willis v. Roche Biomedical Labs., Inc., 61 F.3d 313, 315 (5th Cir. 1995).

Where, as here, the parties dispute the facts, the Court must view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007) (internal citations omitted). " However, a nonmovant may not overcome the summary judgment standard with conclusional allegations, unsupported assertions, or presentation of only a scintilla of evidence." McClure v. Boles, 490 F.Appx. 666, 667 (5th Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (citing Hathaway v. Bazany, 507 F.3d 312, 319 (5th Cir. 2007)).

Plaintiff claims Defendants wrongfully denied him tenure due to his race and national origin in violation of Title VII. The Fifth Circuit has noted:

Other circuits have recognized that tenure decisions in colleges and universities involve considerations that set them apart from other kinds of employment decisions. Those factors are: (1) tenure contracts require unusual commitments as to time and collegial relationships, (2)

Page 472

academic tenure decisions are often non-competitive, (3) tenure decisions are usually highly decentralized, (4) the number of factors considered in tenure decisions is quite extensive, and (5) tenure decisions are a source of unusually great disagreement.

Tanik v. So. Methodist Univ., 116 F.3d 775, 776 (5th Cir. 1997) (internal footnotes omitted) (citing Zahorik v. Cornell Univ., 729 F.2d 85, 92-93 (2d Cir. 1984); Kumar v. Univ. of Mass., 774 F.2d 1, 11 (1st Cir. 1985)). Although tenure decisions may be unique employment decisions, ...


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