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Thomas v. Delaware State University

United States District Court, D. Delaware

October 6, 2014

MICHELLE THOMAS Plaintiff,
v.
DELAWARE STATE UNIVERSITY, LANCE T. HOUSTON, individually and in his official capacity, AMIR MOHAMMADI, individually and in his official capacity, and OFFICER HEATHER COOKE, individually and in her official capacity, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

GREGORY M. SLEET, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

On June 14, 2010, the plaintiff, Michelle Thomas ("Thomas"), filed this lawsuit against Delaware State University ("DSU"); the Assistant Vice President for Legal Affairs at DSU, Lance T. Houston ("Houston"); the Vice President for Finance and Administration at DSU, Amir Mohammadi ("Mohammadi"); and a police officer employed by DSU, Heather Cooke ("Cooke") (collectively, "the Defendants"). (D.I. 1.) Since filing her Complaint, Thomas has stipulated to the dismissal of several of her original claims. (D.I. 61.) As such, the only remaining claims are: (1) unlawful First Amendment retaliation against DSU, Houston, and Mohammadi, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (2) violations of Thomas' Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process rights against DSU, Houston, and Mohammadi, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and (3) violation of the Delaware Whistleblowers' Protection Act ("WPA") against DSU, Houston, and Mohammadi, pursuant to 19 Del. C.§ 1701 et seq. [1] Presently before the court is the Defendants' motion for summary judgment.[2] (D.I. 57.) For the reasons stated below, the court will grant the Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

II. BACKGROUND

Thomas was hired by DSU in December 2001 as a Senior Secretary. (D.I. 65, Ex. B at 11.) In addition to her employment, Thomas was involved with the union representing DSU's administrative and clerical employees-AFSCME Local 1007. ( Id. at 15.) Thomas became Union President in 2006 or 2007. As Union President, Thomas brought grievances against DSU on behalf of union members and represented employees in disputes with the school. ( Id. at 22-23.) The majority of grievances concerned violations of the Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA"), such as assigning work outside prescribed job descriptions, failing to pay at proper pay grade, etc. ( Id. at 23-23; Ex. M.) Thomas also made complaints of unsafe working conditions, claiming there was mold and asbestos in some of the older buildings. (D.I. 65, Ex. Bat 122-23.)

On October 8, 2008, Officer Cooke arranged to have Thomas' car towed from a DSU parking lot for having several unpaid parking tickets. (D.I. 59, Exs. E-G.) Thomas, who was working nearby, came outside to confront Cooke and stop the towing. ( Id. Ex. G.) The parties dispute the events that followed, but some sort of altercation ensued in which Thomas unlawfully touched Cooke. ( Id. Ex. Hat 3-4.) Cooke ultimately did not tow the car, and Thomas reported to the Public Safety Department to pay the outstanding parking fines. ( Id. Ex. Cat 34.) Thomas also was not arrested at the time. ( Id. at 52.) Cooke subsequently pressed charges, however, and a warrant issued for Thomas' arrest on October 23, 2008, listing two charges: offensive touching of a law enforcement officer and disorderly conduct. ( Id. Ex. J.) Thomas was formally arrested on November 6, 2008. ( Id. Ex. K.)

Following the arrest, DSU conducted its own investigation. On November 19, 2008, Thomas met with Mohammadi and Karen Valentine, a staff representative for the union, to discuss the incident with Cooke and the arrest. ( Id. Ex. Cat 73-74; Ex. L.) Thomas denied any wrongdoing. ( Id. Ex. Cat 74.) DSU and Mohammadi elected not to take any action at that time; Mohammadi testified that he was reluctant to discipline Thomas because of the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations between DSU and the union. ( Id. Ex. A at 82.) Thomas' criminal prosecution continued into 2009.

In June 2009, Thomas filed a grievance on behalf of the union against Mohammadi's son. (D.I. 65, Ex. N.) The grievance concerned work being performed by a non-union member, in violation of the CBA. ( Id. Ex. C at 8.) In a conversation with Valentine, Mohammadi was reportedly very upset that Thomas was "going after" his son. ( Id. C at 9, 11; D.I. 66, Ex. 2 at 142-43.) Thomas testified that Mohammadi had told Valentine: "How dare she file a grievance against my son? I will not stand for it and I will get her for this." (D.I 65, Ex. B at 109.) Thomas was not present during the conversation.

On December 1, 2009, Thomas entered a guilty plea to the charge of offensive touching, in exchange for a sentence of unsupervised probation. (D.I. 59, Ex. H.) Upon learning of the guilty plea, Mohammadi instructed Houston to prepare a notice informing Thomas of her termination. (D.I. 65, Ex. Hat 48-49.) On December 3, 2009, Houston issued Thomas a Notice of Paid Administrative Leave and Intent to Terminate ("Notice"). (D.I. 59, Ex. L.) The Notice stated that Thomas was to be terminated for giving false statements during DSU's investigation into her incident with Cooke. ( Id. ) The Notice gave Thomas the option of having a pre-termination hearing, which Thomas exercised. ( Id.; Ex. N.)

On January 21, 2010, DSU held a pre-termination hearing for Thomas, with Houston conducting the hearing. ( Id. Ex. C at 99.) Valentine was also present; she represented Thomas and responded to the charges against her. ( Id. at 99, 102.) Valentine argued that Thomas had not lied about her conduct, that the termination was retaliation and in violation of the CBA, and other reasons why Thomas should not be terminated. ( Id. at 100-02.)

On February 9, 2010, Houston issued a Notice of Termination to Thomas based on the charges outlined in the original Notice. ( Id. Ex. D.) The decision to terminate had come from Mohammadi. ( Id. Ex. A at 113.) Thomas subsequently filed a grievance claiming that her termination violated provisions of the CBA. ( Id. Ex. C at 71.) On November 17, 2010, an arbitrator ruled that Thomas' termination had indeed violated the CBA and that Thomas was to be reinstated to her position at DSU, without backpay. ( Id. Ex. Q.) Thomas returned to work at DSU on December 1, 2010. ( Id. Ex. Cat 12-13.)

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate "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 a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the burden of proving that no genuine issue of material fact exists. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585 n.10 (1986). A fact is material if it "could affect the outcome" of the proceeding. Lamont v. New Jersey, 637 F.3d 177, 181 (3d Cir. 2011). There is a genuine issue "if the evidence is sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-moving party." Id. When determining whether a genuine issue of material facts exists, the district court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw inferences in that party's favor. Wishkin v. Potter, 476 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2007). If the moving party is able to demonstrate an absence of disputed material facts, the nonmoving party must then "come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial."' Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (citing Fed. R. Cir. P. 56(e)).

The mere existence of some evidence in support of the nonmoving party will not be sufficient for denial of a summary judgment motion. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S, 242, 249 (1986). Rather, the nonmoving party must present enough evidence to enable a jury to reasonably find for it on that issue. Id. The party opposing summary judgment must present more than just "mere allegations, general denials, or... vague statements" to show the existence of a genuine issue. Quiroga v. Hasbro, Inc., 934 F.2d 497, 500 (3d Cir. 1991). As such, a nonmoving party must support their assertion that a material fact is in dispute by: "(A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials"; or "(B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible ...


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