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Obene v. Jackson State University

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

May 9, 2017

DR. TONTEL OBENE APPELLANT
v.
JACKSON STATE UNIVERSITY; DR. MELVIN DAVIS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE MISSISSIPPI URBAN RESEARCH CENTER; DR. FELIX OKOJIE, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS VICE PRESIDENT FOR RESEARCH, DEVELOPMENT AND FEDERAL AFFAIRS; AND MS. SANDRA SELLERS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF HUMAN RESOURCES APPELLEES

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 10/30/2015

         HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT, WILLIAM A. GOWAN JR. TRIAL JUDGE

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: J. KEITH PEARSON SARAH LYNN DICKEY

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: ALAN M. PURDIE DION JEFFERY SHANLEY

          BEFORE LEE, C.J., BARNES AND WESTBROOKS, JJ.

          LEE, C.J.

         ¶1. Dr. Tontel Obene appeals the order of the circuit court granting summary judgment to Jackson State University (JSU) on her wrongful-termination claim. Finding no reversible error, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. In September 2009, Dr. Obene was employed by JSU as the lead epidemiologist/evaluator for the Delta Health Project, a research project coordinated by the Mississippi Urban Research Center (MURC), a division of JSU. The project was funded by a five-year grant for HIV prevention from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC provided funding to the Mississippi Department of Health (MDH), and in turn, MDH contracted with MURC to perform part of the evaluation work under the grant. At all relevant times, Dr. Obene's supervisor was Dr. Melvin Davis, the director of MURC and the project director for the grant.

         ¶3. At the time relevant to this appeal, Dr. Obene's employment with JSU was tied directly to her work on the grant project and characterized by a letter of employment dated August 20, 2010, which read, in pertinent part:

This is to inform you of your continued employment on the staff of Jackson State University as Epidemiologist/Evaluator, MS Urban Research Center, at a salary of $60, 000 per annum (pro-rata), effective for the period of July 1, 2010 and extending through September 29, 2010.
Please note that Jackson State University, the employer, reserves the right to terminate your employment and/or decrease the salary specified at any time by giving one month's notice.

         The dates of employment stated in the letter directly corresponded with the phases of the five-year grant, which was renewable every year. The first phase was set to expire on September 29, 2010.

         ¶4. The grant was extended for a period of three months, September 30, 2010, through December 31, 2010. Dr. Obene was assigned to complete the application for the three-month continuation phase. One of Dr. Obene's job responsibilities included drafting the budget proposal for the next phase of the grant project's continuation. During the first phase of the project, Dr. Davis received 2% of the grant funds for his supervisory role. For the continuation phase, Dr. Davis requested that Dr. Obene submit the application with a proposed increase to 10% for his extra-duty pay because he anticipated a greater ...


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