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Diverse Docket: Federal Judge Rejects Discrimination, Retaliation Suit

A federal judge in New York has thrown out a discrimination and retaliation suit by an African-American faculty member who was denied a promotion to an administrative position at Suffolk County Community College.

U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt ruled that Dr. Michelle Cummings-Flower failed to prove that her supervisors had participated in discriminatory hiring procedures, subjected her to racist comments or created a hostile work environment.

In 1997, the college hired Cummings-Fowler as an adjunct faculty member, according to the decision. She became a full-time faculty member in 2000 and was promoted to coordinator of instructional development in 2003. She received no negative performance reviews during her time at the college, Spatt said.

The suit alleged that the college’s vice president for academic and student affairs, who also headed her department, commonly referred to African-Americans as “you people” and college White colleagues by their professional titles while referring to her as “young lady” or “Michelle.”

When she complained to an associate dean, he “launched into a racist rant,” the suit claimed, and told her that “you people are just taking over,” referring to the college president, vice president and two executive deans who were Black.

She claimed those and other racist “comments and attitudes made her feel demeaned, humiliated and less equal than her White peers, as well as put her in a position where she thought she had to constantly prove herself,” the decision said. However, she didn’t follow the college’s complaint procedures, meaning there was no internal investigation.

Cummings-Flower may have subjectively felt pressure, humiliation and inhospitality because of racist and inappropriate remarks, Spatt said, but there wasn’t enough objective evidence to conclude her supervisors intended to discriminate or that “discriminatory intimidation” pervaded the work environment.

“For racist comments, slurs and jokes to constitute a hostile work environment, there must be a steady barrage of opprobrious racial comments,” the decision said. “Although there is no threshold magic number of harassing incidents that give rise to a hostile work environment claim, as a general rule, incidents must be sufficiently continuous and concerted to be deemed pervasive.”

The decision said, “None of the alleged comments were especially abhorrent or inflammatory, nor did they involve physical threats or egregious language, slurs or epithets. Moreover, nothing in the record suggests that their conduct was anything more than episodic,” saying Cummings-Flowers cited only a “handful of specific incidents over the course of more than 10 years of employment.”

On the promotion issue, Spatt said the college had a valid nondiscriminatory reason for hiring a White man rather than promote her to associate dean of instructional technology, a position for which a doctorate was preferred but not required.

The successful applicant, who had a master’s degree, was at least equally qualified, the judge said, and had more relevant experience. He also was nearly done with his doctoral work at the time of the search.

As for retaliation, she failed to prove the college hired her violent, estranged husband for a part-time proctoring job and then terminated him in such a way that he would blame her for losing the position. Rather, the college’s personnel action was based on a Family Court protection order prohibiting the husband from being on campus where she worked.

Arab doctoral student set back

An employment discrimination lawsuit by an Arab doctoral student from Jordan should be dismissed because his university graduate assistant scholarship didn’t make him an employee, according to a federal court ruling in Ohio.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephanie Bowman also said Ali Al-Maqablh’s substandard academic record provided a non-discriminatory reason for the University Of Cincinnati College Of Medicine to drop him from its cancer and cell biology program.

In addition, the university cited non-academic “red flags” involving his behavior. They included directly contacting professors, in violation of the protocol for challenging grades, and threatening to file a grievance against his department chair.

Al-Maqablh enrolled in the program in 2008. The university placed him on academic probation and then dismissed him the next year for failing to earn at least a B in a required cell biology course and for failing to secure a thesis advisor willing to fully fund his scholarship.

The Title VII lawsuit, in which Al-Maqablh represented himself, alleged discrimination based on race and national origin.

In her decision, Bowman agreed with the university that Al-Maqablh was a student, not an employee, and therefore wasn’t protected by Title VII. The decision said he participated in the graduate program as a student engaged in classes, seminars and lab research, wasn’t required to work as a teaching or lab assistant and received a scholarship rather than a paycheck.

“More importantly, the dominant purpose of his relationship with the university was educational” and his complaint “asserts claims solely related to his academic activities as a graduate student,” Bowman said. “The undisputed evidence establishes that the university’s decision to dismiss him from the graduate program was an academic decision unrelated to his alleged employment with the university.”

Bowman also found no direct evidence of discrimination based on national origin or race and rejected the argument that the university had treated four non-Arab, non-Jordanian graduate students more favorably than it treated him.

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