United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division
NEAL B. BIGGERS, Jr., District Judge.
Presently before the court is the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Upon due consideration of the motion, response, exhibits, and supporting and opposing authority, the court is ready to rule.
Factual and Procedural Background
The plaintiff, Mozaina Kobaisy, is a native of Syria and a naturalized United States citizen. She was hired as a research scientist at the National Center for Natural Products Research ("the Center") at the University of Mississippi in 2004. Defendants Dr. Larry Walker and Dr. Ikhlas Khan advised the plaintiff of the position and encouraged her to apply. Dr. Khan recommended that the University hire her, and he served as her direct supervisor throughout her employment. The plaintiff was hired as a full-time, permanent, non-tenured staff member. As such, the plaintiff was entitled to no expectation of continued employment. Attached to the letter confirming her employment was a document containing the terms and conditions of her employment which stated explicitly that the plaintiff's position was contingent upon the Center continuing to receive external funding for her position.
The position required the plaintiff to do extensive "wet" laboratory work in natural products chemistry. In January 2006, while performing a lab experiment, the plaintiff was injured by a piece of laboratory equipment which exploded. She was initially temporarily totally disabled and is now permanently partially disabled, having lost the use of one eye. She asserts that she suffers from both physical and mental impairment caused by the accident.
Much of the funding for the Center is supported by grants and contracts from the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration ("FDA"). FDA funds are typically awarded to further the advancement of specific assigned goals while USDA funds support the Center's basic infrastructure. After the plaintiff's January 2006 accident, the University placed the plaintiff on paid leave and, for the fiscal year beginning after the accident, changed the source of funding for her position so that she could be paid out of general USDA funds rather that project-specific FDA funds. Many of the plaintiff's co-workers donated personal leave to the plaintiff so that she could remain on paid leave for the maximum period allowed. Even Defendant Dr. Khan donated 160 hours of his personal leave time to the plaintiff.
On August 15, 2006, the plaintiff's donated leave expired, and the University placed her on leave without pay. She was not initially terminated, nor did she resign. Through an apparent oversight, she continued to remain on the employment roll as an employee of the University for several years. The plaintiff had no further contact with Dr. Khan or Dr. Walker regarding continued employment as a research scientist at the Center from August 2006 until late 2010. In December 2010, the plaintiff approached the University and requested to return to her former position. The University advised the plaintiff at that time that her job was no longer available and refused her request.
The plaintiff subsequently filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleging discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). The EEOC issued the plaintiff's right to sue letter on November 16, 2011. The plaintiff filed the present action on November 30, 2011, asserting violations of Section 1983, Title VII, and the ADA, and a claim of civil conspiracy under state law. The court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's claim for money damages under Section 1983 and the ADA, finding that the University, as an arm of the state, and its employees in their official capacities were entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. The court found that the individual defendants were afforded the protection of qualified immunity to any federal claims against them in their individual capacities. The court also dismissed the plaintiff's Title VII claim of national origin discrimination because her EEOC charge on that claim was filed well outside the 180-day limitations period. Finally, the court dismissed the state law conspiracy claim against the defendants in their official capacities. The plaintiff's only remaining claims are for injunctive relief to regain her employment based on the plaintiff's claim of national origin discrimination under Section 1983 and her claim for state law civil conspiracy against the individual defendants in their individual capacities.
Standard of Review
A party is entitled to summary judgment "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). On a motion for summary judgment, the movant has the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). If the movant makes such a showing, 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 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), (e)). Before finding that no genuine issue for trial exists, the court must first be satisfied that no rational trier of fact could find for the non-movant. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).
"[T]he issue of fact must be genuine.' When the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Id. at 586. "Unsubstantiated assertions, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation are not sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment." Brown v. City of Houston, Tex., 337 F.3d 539, 541 (5th Cir. 2003). Further, self-serving "affidavit or deposition testimony setting forth ultimate or conclusory facts and conclusions of law are insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment." Clark v. America's Favorite Chicken Co., 110 F.3d 295, 297 (5th Cir. 1997).
The court must render summary judgment in favor of the moving party if "there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 135 (2000). The Supreme Court has cautioned, however, that the ruling court must not encroach upon the functions of the jury. The Court stated in Reeves as follows:
[T]he court must review all of the evidence in the record, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, but making no credibility determinations or weighing any evidence. The latter functions, along with the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts, are for the jury, not the court. Thus, although the court should review the record as a whole, it must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe.
Id. (citations omitted). "Summary judgment, although a useful device, must be employed cautiously because it is a final adjudication on the merits." Jackson v. Cain, 864 F.2d 1235, 1241 (5th Cir. 1989).
Section 1983 claims against state officials for money damages are barred by sovereign immunity, but claims against state officials for prospective injunctive relief under Section 1983 are not barred. Yul Chu v. Miss. St. Univ., 901 F.Supp.2d 761, 774-75 (N.D. Miss. 2012) (citing Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908)). The successful plaintiff pursuing a Section 1983 claim will "(1) allege a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and (2) demonstrate that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law." Doe ex rel. Magee v. Covington County Sch. Dist., 675 F.3d 849, 854 (5th Cir. 2012).
In this circuit, Section 1983 employment discrimination claims are analyzed under the same evidentiary framework as Title VII claims. Bell v. South Delta Sch. Dist., 325 F.Supp.2d 728, 736 (S.D.Miss. 2004) (citing Lawrence v. Univ. of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, 163 F.3d 309, 311 (5th Cir. 1999)). The plaintiff must show intentional, unlawful discrimination, and she may do so with either direct or indirect evidence. In the absence of direct evidence of discrimination, the court analyzes the plaintiff's claim under the familiar burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).
To establish a prima facie case of discrimination, the plaintiff must show that she (1) is a member of a protected class; (2) was qualified for the position at issue; and (3) suffered an adverse employment action. Lee v. Kansas City Southern Ry. Co., 574 F.3d 253, 259 (5th Cir. 2009). The plaintiff must also show either that she was replaced by someone who was not a member of a protected class or that she "was treated less favorably because of [her] membership in that protected class than were other similarly situated employees who were not members of the protected class, under nearly identical circumstances." Id. Once the plaintiff has established a prima facie case, "an inference of intentional discrimination is raised, and the burden of production shifts to the employer, who must offer an alternative nondiscriminatory explanation for the adverse employment action." Id. "Once the employer offers evidence of such a legitimate reason, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff-employee to raise a genuine issue of material fact that this non-discriminatory reason is merely pretextual." Willis v. Coca Cola Enterprises, Inc., 445 F.3d 413, 420 (5th Cir. 2006). At this point, "the factual inquiry proceeds to a new level of specificity." Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 255 (1981). "Although the McDonnell Douglas framework shifts the burden of production ...