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Fulton v. Mississippi State University

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

May 16, 2019

NAOMI J. FULTON PLAINTIFF
v.
MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY, et. al DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

         Plaintiff Naomi Fulton works for Defendant Mississippi State University's Extension Service. In this case, she sues Mississippi State, alleging her superiors transferred her to another office location in retaliation after she and another employee complained of racial discrimination. Mississippi State has filed a motion for summary judgment [43]. Because Fulton does not point to evidence that would show she engaged in a protected activity or that she suffered an adverse employment action, that motion is granted.

         Background

         Fulton, an African American female, began working in the Monroe County office of Mississippi State's Extension Service in October 2008 as an Extension Program Assistant. In that role, she assisted local schools in providing nutrition education and programming. Paula Threadgill Affidavit [43-1], ¶ 4. In 2014, Mississippi State hired Elois Smith, also an African American female, as an Extension Program Agent. Id., ¶ 7. Like Fulton, some of Smith's job duties included nutrition education programming. Id.

         In the fall of 2015, Mississippi State transferred Fulton to the Extension office in the adjacent Chickasaw County office. Id., ¶¶ 8-9. According to Mississippi State, this transfer occurred for three reasons. First, the Chickasaw County office was without any employee who provided nutrition programming to schools in that county, while the Monroe County office had both Fulton and Smith. Second, because Fulton lived in Chickasaw County, Mississippi State believed the transfer would be good for Fulton. Third, Fulton had previously discussed transferring to Chickasaw County with another employee. Id., ¶ 9

         At the time of Fulton's transfer, Dr. Scott Cagle was the County Director of the Chickasaw County Extension office. Scott Cagle Affidavit [43-3], ¶ 2 After learning that Fulton would be transferring to the office, Cagle set about trying to lease additional office space from the United States Department of Agriculture, which owned the building the office was located in. Id., ¶ 6. Upon Fulton's arrival, Cagle informed Fulton that while he was in the process of leasing additional space for Fulton's office, he had not yet been able to obtain it. Id., ¶ 8 Therefore, she would temporarily be assigned to a desk which she shared with a secretary. Id. Additionally, Cagle provided her with storage space for her work files. Id., ¶ 9. By March 2016, Cagle was able to acquire an office for Fulton, which turned out to be the largest in the Chickasaw County location. Id., ¶ 7. Cagle ensured that the office was renovated, and even involved Fulton in selecting some furniture for the office. Id.

         On January 1, 2016, after her transfer to Chickasaw County, but before she received her new office space, Fulton filed a charge of Discrimination with the EEOC. On February 10, 2017, the EEOC issued a right to sue notice, and Fulton timely filed this suit. Fulton alleges in her complaint that Mississippi State did not transfer her for legitimate, work-related reasons. Instead, she alleges that she was transferred as punishment for complaining about racial harassment occurring at the Monroe County location and for associating with Smith, who complained about sexual harassment she was receiving from a supervisor in the Monroe County office. She further alleges that when she arrived at the Chickasaw County office, Cagle told her that he was not expecting any transfer, and that as a result of being forced to store her materials in storage, she was unable to properly perform her job.

         Mississippi State has now moved for summary judgment.

         Summary Judgment Standard

         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) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). 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." Id. 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. See Id. "An issue of fact is material only if 'its resolution could affect the outcome of the action'." Manning v. Chevron Chem. Co., LLC, 332 F.3d 874, 877 (5th Cir. 2003) (quoting Wyatt v. Hunt Plywood Co., 297 F.3d 405, 408 (5th Cir. 2002)).

         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." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (internal quotation marks omitted.); 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). The Court "resolve[s] factual controversies in favor of the nonmoving party, but only where there is an actual controversy, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts." Antoine v. First Student, Inc., 713 F.3d 824, 830 (5th Cir. 2013) (quoting Boudreaux v. Swift Transp. Co., Inc., 402 F.3d 536, 540 (5th Cir. 2005)). "[T]he nonmoving party 'cannot defeat summary judgment with conclusory allegations, unsubstantiated assertions, or only a scintilla of evidence.'" Hathaway v. Bazany, 507 F.3d 312, 319 (5th Cir. 2007) (quoting Turner v. Baylor Richardson Medical Center, 476 F.3d 337, 343 (5th Cir. 2007)).

         Analysis

         Title VII prohibits employers from retaliating against employees that oppose unlawful discriminatory practices. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3. "Title VII discrimination can be established through either direct or circumstantial evidence." Laxton v. Gap Inc., 333 F.3d 572, 578 (5th Cir.2003) (citing Wallace v. Methodist Hosp. Sys., 271 F.3d 212, 219 (5th Cir.2001)). If the employee cannot show direct evidence of discriminatory retaliation, the McDonell Douglas burden-shifting framework applies. Septimus v. Univ. of Houston, 399 F.3d 601, 608 (5th Cir. 2005). Under this framework, the employee must first establish a, prima facie case of retaliation. Id. at 607. An employee establishes by a prima facie case of retaliation by providing evidence that "(1) that she engaged in activity protected by Title VII, (2) that an adverse employment action occurred, and (3) that a causal link existed between the protected activity and the adverse employment action." Evans v. City of Houston, 246 F.3d 344, 352 (5th Cir. 2001) (quoting Long v. Eastfield College, 88 F.3d 300, 304 (5th Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks omitted)). The burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for the employment action. Septimus, 399 F.3d at 607. Finally, the burden shifts back to the employee to show that the employer's reason is just a pretext for retaliation by showing that her protected conduct is the "but-for" cause of the adverse employment action. Id. at 607-608 (citations omitted).

         Fulton filed her response three weeks after it was due. She did not ask the Court to grant her additional time to respond or ask for permission to file her response out of time. Thus, the Court is under no obligation to consider her response. Even if the Court were to consider it, the response fails to challenge Mississippi State's motion. Although this is a summary judgment motion, Fulton does not point to a single piece of record evidence to establish a material factual dispute; she instead contends that her complaint contains an adequate factual basis to defeat summary judgment. Indeed, a portion of her ...


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