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Hale v. Emporia State University

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 14, 2017



          Daniel D. Crabtree United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Angelica Hale brings this action pro se against defendants Emporia State University (“ESU”), Gwen Alexander, David Cordle, and Jackie Vietti. Plaintiff alleges that her former employer, ESU, retaliated against her by terminating her employment because she complained about racial discrimination. She asserts a Title VII retaliation claim against ESU. Plaintiff also alleges that defendants Alexander, Cordle, and Vietti retaliated against her after she exercised her right to speak out against discrimination and racism. She asserts a First Amendment retaliation claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against these three individuals.

         Defendants have filed a Motion to Dismiss all of plaintiff's claims under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Doc. 17. Plaintiff has filed an Opposition to defendants' Motion. Doc. 19. And, defendants have submitted a Reply. Doc. 15. After considering the parties' arguments, the court grants defendants' motion in part and denies it in part. The court grants defendants' Motion to Dismiss the official capacity claims asserted against defendants Alexander, Cordle, and Vietti. The court denies the motion in all other respects.

         I. Factual Background

         The following facts are taken from plaintiff's Complaint (Doc. 1). The court accepts the facts asserted in the Complaint as true and views them in the light most favorable to plaintiff. Burnett v. Mortg. Elec. Registration Sys., Inc., 706 F.3d 1231, 1235 (10th Cir. 2013) (citing Smith v. United States, 561 F.3d 1090, 1098 (10th Cir. 2009)). The court also construes plaintiff's allegations liberally because she proceeds pro se. See Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991) (holding that courts must construe pro se litigant's pleadings liberally and hold them to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers).

         Plaintiff is an African-American female. On July 1, 2014, ESU hired plaintiff as an Assistant to the Dean for Marketing in the School of Library and Information Management (“SLIM”) at ESU. Also on July 1, 2014, ESU hired plaintiff's spouse, Dr. Melvin Hale, as an Assistant Professor in the SLIM.

         In December 2014, Dr. Hale complained to Dr. Gwen Alexander, Dean of SLIM, about Debra Rittgers, Office Manager and Assistant to the Dean of SLIM. Dr. Hale accused Ms. Rittgers of racial discrimination directed at him as well as his wife (plaintiff). Dr. Alexander refuted Dr. Hale's claim. Dr. Alexander told Dr. Hale that Ms. Rittgers had not committed any acts of racial discrimination. Dr. Alexander also told Dr. Hale that he and his wife probably were too sensitive, and she asked if his wife was going through menopause.

         Dr. Hale told Dr. Alexander that plaintiff would not return to work at the SLIM unless her employer satisfied certain conditions, including moving plaintiff to a private office on the fourth floor of the building, away from Ms. Rittgers. Plaintiff believes that her move to the fourth floor office then created “unspoken tensions in the workplace.” Doc. 1 ¶ 26. After plaintiff's office move, Ms. Rittgers stopped communicating with plaintiff unless necessary. Ms. Rittgers also failed to transfer plaintiff's phone to the upstairs office for almost six months. And, Ms. Rittgers interfered with plaintiff's assignments to a graduate assistant by giving the graduate assistant conflicting assignments.

         On April 8, 2015, the graduate assistant arrived at work to find that someone had unlocked her office, tampered with its contents, and wrote the word “NIGGAZ” on a notepad on her desk. The graduate assistant reported what she found to plaintiff. Plaintiff believes that the racial slur was directed at her and her husband, and that the graduate assistant who reported it to her merely served as a conduit to deliver the message.

         Plaintiff and Dr. Hale reported the incident to Dr. Alexander and requested that she investigate it. Plaintiff believes that Dr. Alexander did nothing to investigate the matter. In late June 2015, the Hales reported the incident to Dr. David Cordle, ESU's Provost, and Judy Anderson, Director of Human Resources. The Hales also reported the incident to the ESU Police Department and attempted to file a police report. According to plaintiff, the ESU Police Department refused to investigate the matter. The Hales also called the Lyon County Attorney and left a message asking that he call them to discuss a possible hate crime at ESU. The Lyon County Attorney never returned this phone call. According to plaintiff, the Lyon County Attorney chose not to investigate the matter and concluded that no crime had occurred after relying on information that ESU provided.

         Dr. Hale then wrote a letter to Dr. Jackie Vietti, ESU's Interim President, asking her to investigate the April 8, 2015 incident and reporting his belief that he and his wife were victims of retaliation. Shortly after Dr. Hale sent the letter, a Human Resources employee contacted the Hales, explaining that he was assembling a report about the incident for Dr. Vietti. The Hales met with the Human Resources employee separately. During their conversations, they each discussed their concerns about the April 8, 2015 incident. They also reported the earlier incidents of discrimination by Ms. Rittgers.

         The Hales later learned that the Human Resources employee charged with writing the report about the incident was a family friend of Ms. Rittgers. The Hales accused the employee of bias and asked that he recuse himself from the investigation. The employee refused to recuse. Dr. Vietti also refused to remove the employee from reporting the matter.

         Plaintiff alleges that Dr. Alexander began to treat her and her husband differently than others in the SLIM after they reported the April 8, 2015 incident to Provost Cordle and the ESU Police Department. On July 7, 2015, Dr. Alexander came to the fourth floor to visit all of the faculty members on that floor but refused to visit the Hales. Afterwards, Dr. Hale went to the third floor to talk to Dr. Alexander. During this conversation, Dr. Alexander expressed disappointment that the Hales had reported the April 8, 2015 incident to the Provost and the ESU Police Department. Dr. Alexander said that the Hales' performance had been stellar leading up to their complaints, but that she felt blindsided by their allegations that she and Ms. Rittgers had engaged in misconduct. Dr. Alexander told Dr. Hale that she had hoped he would have overlooked the April 8, 2015 incident because he could have served as a model for professional behavior by an African-American. Dr. Alexander also expressed frustration that the Hales wanted something done about the incident. She told him that he should accept the incident because “[t]his is Kansas.” Doc. 1 ¶ 78.

         Plaintiff was a contractual employee when she started working for the SLIM. According to plaintiff, Dr. Alexander promised that she would make plaintiff a permanent employee because she was doing an excellent job. Dr. Alexander encouraged plaintiff to complete her Bachelor's degree so that she could earn a higher salary and have the opportunity for promotions at ESU. Plaintiff enrolled in classes at ESU starting in the fall of 2015, so that she could work toward her degree. But, after the Hales complained to the Provost and the ESU Police Department about the April 8, 2015 incident, Dr. Alexander told plaintiff that ESU would not renew her contract and that she would not become a permanent employee. Because of this decision, plaintiff had to drop her enrollment in the college courses at ESU.

         Plaintiff resigned from ESU two weeks before her contract ended. She did so because Dr. Alexander had asked her to interact with Ms. Rittgers in what plaintiff perceived as a demeaning and subservient manner. After plaintiff resigned, Dr. Alexander sent an email to the SLIM faculty praising plaintiff's work, informing them of her resignation, and asking for recommendations to fill the vacant position. Plaintiff alleges that this email shows that Dr. Alexander did not terminate plaintiff's contract based on her performance or a budget shortfall. Instead, plaintiff asserts that Dr. Alexander terminated her contract as retaliation for plaintiff complaining about racial discrimination. Plaintiff also alleges that Dr. Cordle and Dr. Vietti ignored her and her husband's complaints about racial discrimination and retaliation for reporting discrimination.

         II. Motion To Dismiss Standard Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6)

         Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) provides that a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Although this Rule “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, '” it demands more than “[a] pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action'” which, as the Supreme Court explained, ...

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