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Issa v. Delaware State University

United States District Court, D. Delaware

April 23, 2019

JAHI ISSA, Plaintiff,
DELAWARE STATE UNIVERSITY, HARRY WILLIAMS, Individually and in his official capacity; ALTON THOMPSON, Individually and in his official capacity; HARRY R. DOWNES, JR., Individually and in his official capacity; JUSTIN BUCHWALD, Individually and in his official capacity; and DOMINICK CAMP ALONE, Individually and in his official capacity; Defendants.

          Benjamin J. Schladweiler, GREENBERG TRAURIG, LLP, Wilmington, DE

          Giancarlo Scaccia, GREENBERG TRAURIG, LLP, New York, NY

          Garrett B. Moritz and Anne M. Steadman, ROSS ARONSTAM & MORITZ LLP, Wilmington, DE Attorneys for Plaintiff

          James D. Taylor and Randall S. MacTough, SAUL EWING ARNSTEIN & LEHR LLP, Wilmington, DE Attorneys for Defendants


          STARK, U.S. District Judge.

         Plaintiff Jahi Issa ("Plaintiff) filed this action alleging nine counts of discrimination and violations of his constitutional rights pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1988, and 2000e-5, et seq., and the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. (D.I. 2; D.I. 58)

         Presently before the Court is: (1) Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment ("Plaintiffs Motion") (D.I. 112) regarding his Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act claim and Defendants' affirmative defenses; and (2) Defendants Delaware State University, Harry Williams, Alton Thompson, Harry R. Downes, Jr., Justin Buchwald, and Dominick Campalone's ("Defendants") Motion for Partial Summary Judgment ("Defendants' Motion") (D.I. 107), regarding Count IV (Defamation against Thompson), Count V (Retaliation against all Defendants except Delaware State University), Count VI (Due Process claims against Harry Williams and Alton Thompson), Count VII (Intentional Discrimination against Delaware State University), and Count IX (Retaliation against Delaware State University).

         Neither party is moving for summary judgment on Count I (False Arrest and False Imprisonment against Harry R. Downes, Dominick Campalone, and Justin Buchwald), Count III (Breach of Contract against Delaware State University), or Count VIII (Hostile Work Environment against Delaware State University).

         Having considered the parties' briefs and numerous exhibits (see D.I. 107, 109, 113, 114, 123, 126, 127, 136, 138, 139) and having heard oral argument on April 8, 2019 (see D.I. 153 ("Tr.")), the Court will grant-in-part and deny-in-part both Plaintiffs Motion and Defendants' Motion.[1]


         Plaintiff was an assistant professor of history and Africana studies in the Department of History, Political Science, and Philosophy ("HPSP") at Delaware State University ("DSU" or the "University") in Dover, Delaware. (D.I. 58 ("Second Amended Complaint") ¶ 10) He generally alleges a history of harassment and discrimination throughout his time at DSU. (See, e.g., Id. ¶¶ 22-27, 29-30, 32-36, 39)

         In 2010, Plaintiff applied for a promotion to associate professor. (Id. ¶ 15) The promotion and tenure committee voted to recommend approval of Plaintiff s application but Marshall Stevenson, Jr. ("Stevenson"), Dean of DSU's College of Arts, Humanities and Social Studies, disagreed with that decision and denied Plaintiff the promotion. (Id. ¶¶ 16, 18) DSU President, Defendant Harry Williams ("Williams"), informed Plaintiff that he was not recommending Plaintiff for promotion. (Id. ¶ 20) That same year, 2010, two of Plaintiff s HPSP colleagues, both of whom are Caucasian females, were promoted. (Id. ¶ 21) Plaintiff, an African-American male, contends that these individuals "were not as qualified" as he was. (Id.)

         Plaintiff alleges that in 2011, he was experiencing chest pain and post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") related to his work at DSU. (Id. ¶¶ 35, 38-39) He filed a charge of discrimination with the Delaware Department of Labor on July 15, 2011. (Id. ¶ 42) Plaintiff applied again for a promotion that September and again received a committee recommendation. (Id. ¶¶ 45, 49) But, again, Stevenson and Williams did not support the recommendation and Plaintiff was not promoted. (Id. ¶¶ 50-51)

         On March 1, 2012, Plaintiff attended a protest aimed at the "growing trend in which DSU was abandoning its mission associated with being an HBCU (Historically Black College and University)." (Id. ¶ 54) Plaintiff alleges that his free speech rights were violated when he was "physically assaulted, injured, and arrested" by Defendants Harry Downes, Jr. ("Downes"), DSU's police chief, and Justin Buchwald ("Buchwald"), a DSU police officer. (Id. ¶¶ 56, 58) Because Plaintiff fell to the ground during the arrest, he was transported to a hospital and then arrested and "jailed for several hours." (Id. ¶¶ 59, 61) Plaintiff believes he "was specifically targeted by DSU police at the behest of other named Defendants for the purpose of chilling [Plaintiffs] expression of a viewpoint with which other named Defendants disagreed, and as part of a continuing scheme to harass Plaintiff with malice, in retaliation for his continual filing of grievances with the [U]niversity and due to his filing of charges" with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (Id. ¶ 57)

         Defendants have a strikingly contrasting portrayal of what occurred at the March 1, 2012 protest. They contend that Plaintiff "resisted Chief Downes' efforts to speak with [Plaintiff]" and, in response to Downes "gently touch[ing Plaintiffs] arm" in order to get his attention, Plaintiff "swung his arm and contacted Chief Downes." (See D.I. 109 at 7) A criminal complaint filed by Defendant Dominick Campalone ("Campalone"), a DSU police sergeant, charged Plaintiff with offensive touching, resisting arrest, and two counts of disorderly conduct. (D.I. 58 ¶ 60)

         The next day, DSU notified Plaintiff that it was investigating the incident and put Plaintiff on paid administrative leave. (Id. ¶ 71) A month later, on April 1, 2012, Defendant Williams sent Plaintiff a letter of appointment for the 2012-2013 academic year and "Terminal Contract," which Plaintiff accepted "under protest," after DSU rejected his initial "conditional acceptance." (Id. ¶¶ 75, 80-81) Plaintiff, citing the criminal proceedings against him, did not meet with DSU regarding its administrative investigation. (Id. ¶¶ 86-87) On June 1, 2012, Defendant Alton Thompson ("Thompson"), DSU's provost, informed Plaintiff that DSU would be "pursuing his termination." (Id. ¶ 89) On August 17, 2012, Plaintiff was given a notice of discharge, which Plaintiff contends was in violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") between DSU's Board of Trustees and its chapter of the American Association of University Professors ("AAUP"). (Id. ¶ 91)

         None of the four criminal charges filed against Plaintiff resulted in a conviction. The disorderly conduct charge for failure to disperse was dismissed by the trial court for lack of probable cause. (Id. ¶ 100) The State dismissed the other disorderly conduct charge, which had been based on offensive language, as well as the offensive touching charge. (Id. ¶¶ 101-03) A trial on the charge of resisting arrest resulted in a hung jury, and that charge was ultimately dismissed by the Court of Common Pleas before a scheduled re-trial (due to concerns over the leaking of confidential jury deliberation information). (Id. ¶¶ 104-06)

         Plaintiff filed a pro se Complaint in this Court on February 7, 2014, based on the denial his promotion application, his arrest and the prosecution of the charges arising from that arrest, and his termination from DSU. (D.I. 2) The Court allowed Plaintiff to proceed in forma pauperis. (See D.I. 4) The Court then screened the Complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2). On August 11, 2014, the Court issued a memorandum opinion and order dismissing certain claims (for reasons including sovereign immunity) and giving Plaintiff leave to amend certain others. (See D.I. 5, 6) During the pendency of the criminal case, this case was stayed, and Plaintiff was provided extensions to his deadline for filing an amended complaint. (See D.I. 11, 14)

         Plaintiff retained counsel in February 2015 and filed a redrafted Amended Complaint on April 27, 2015. (D.I. 16) It set forth 14 claims for relief under state and federal law, including 42 U.S.C. § 1983. On May 26, 2015, Plaintiff filed a motion asking the Court to reconsider its finding of sovereign immunity and dismissal of his malicious prosecution claim. (See D.I. 21, 22) On April 1, 2016, Williams, Thompson, Downes, Buchwald, and Campalone (together, the "Individual Defendants"), along with DSU, moved to dismiss. (D.I. 32) On August 4, 2017, the Court issued an opinion granting Plaintiffs motion for reconsideration but continuing to dismiss Plaintiffs malicious prosecution claim, and also granting and denying Defendants' motion to dismiss, thereby dismissing additional claims. (D.I. 40, 41)

         On October 12, 2017, Plaintiffs counsel withdrew and, subsequently, the case was stayed until the Court appointed counsel on February 27, 2018. (D.I. 50, 54, 55) Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint ("SAC"), which is now the operative Complaint, on April 24, 2018. (D.I. 58) The parties filed their summary judgment motions, as well as additional pretrial motions, on December 10, 2018.[3]

         As set out above, on December 10, 2018, Defendants moved for summary judgment on certain claims (D.I. 107) and Plaintiff also moved for summary judgment on other claims (D.I. 112). The Court heard oral argument on these motions on April 8, 2019.


         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585-86 (1986). An assertion that a fact cannot be- or, alternatively, is- genuinely disputed must be supported either by "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 by "showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A) & (B). If the moving party has carried its burden, the nonmovant must then "come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court will "draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).

         To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must "do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; see also Podobnik v. U.S. Postal Serv., 409 F.3d 584, 594 (3d Cir. 2005) (stating party opposing summary judgment "must present more than just bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions to show the existence of a genuine issue") (internal quotation marks omitted). The "mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment;" a factual dispute is genuine only where "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Id. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (stating entry of summary judgment is mandated "against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient 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"). Thus, the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of the nonmoving party's position is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment; there must be "evidence on which the jury could reasonably find" for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.


         A. Plaintiffs Motion

         Plaintiff moves for summary judgment on his Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act ("ADAAA") claim and on Defendants' affirmative defenses. For the reasons set out below, the Court will deny the motion with regard to the AD AAA claim and grant it with regard to Defendants' affirmative defenses.

         1. Count II - AD AAA Claim against DSU

         Plaintiff alleges that DSU failed to accommodate his request, based on his PTSD, for a new office, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA")). (D.I. 113 at 12-17) The ADA requires that an employer offer "reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business of such covered entity." 42 U.S.C. § 12112. In order to prove a violation of the ADA, Plaintiff must establish that: "(1) he is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA; (2) he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and (3) he has suffered an otherwise adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination." Ozlek v. Potter, 259 Fed.Appx. 417, 419-20 (3d Cir. 2007). To establish that Defendants breached their duty to provide a reasonable accommodation, Plaintiff has to show that: (1) Defendants knew about his disability; (2) Plaintiff requested accommodations or ...

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