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Panagiota Heath v. Southern University System Foundation

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

July 12, 2017

PANAGIOTA HEATH
v.
SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY SYSTEM FOUNDATION AND MOSTAFA ELAASAR

          ORDER AND REASONS

          JANIS VAN MEERVELD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by defendants Southern University System Foundation and Mostafa Elaasar, as remanded by the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on April 4, 2017. In accordance with the Fifth Circuit's Order, this Court has reconsidered whether plaintiff Panagiota Heath can survive summary judgment dismissing her claims that she was subjected to a hostile work environment on account of her sex (her claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Action of 1964) and/or on account of her sex, race, religion, and national origin (her claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1983) by considering alleged harassment as early as mid-2011 when she returned to work from a sabbatical.[1] For the following reasons, the Court finds that even considering the entire relevant time period as instructed by the Fifth Circuit, the defendants are entitled to summary judgment.

         Background

         Panagiota “Penney” Heath is a female, a Christian, and a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. She was born in Greece and immigrated to the United States after high school. She began working as a professor of mathematics at Southern University at New Orleans (“SUNO”) in 1996.

         She applied for and received tenure as an associate professor in 2001. In opposition to her motion for summary judgment, Dr. Heath presents letters and emails from students thanking her for her teaching (some undated, some from 2010). The letters indicate that Dr. Heath is well respected and loved by her students for the time and effort she puts into helping them.

         The relevant time period for this lawsuit begins in the middle of 2011 when Dr. Heath returned from a year-long sabbatical, taken for health reasons. However, by way of background, the Court notes that the hostile work environment that forms the backbone of Dr. Heath's remaining claims is alleged to have begun long before 2011. According to Dr. Heath, her problems started when defendant Mostafa Elaasar became chair of the math department in 2003. Dr. Elaasar is a male, he is Muslim, and he is of Egyptian decent. Dr. Heath asserts that in 2003 she was called “crazy” at a faculty meeting, in 2005 a student was pressured to write a complaint about Dr. Heath, and in 2008 Dr. Heath was denied a request for a sabbatical because Dr. Elaasar was not convinced she was capable of writing a book. In 2005, Dr. Heath wrote a 10 page, single-spaced letter complaining about “several incidences of harassment and antagonistic behavior toward” her by Dr. Elaasar and Dr. Omojola (Dean of Science). (Rec. Doc. 70-11, at 3-12). She also described an incident where another teacher, Mrs. Davis, called her “white trash.” But nowhere did she attribute the purported harassment by Dr. Elaasar and Dr. Omojola to her sex, race, religion, or national origin. In her deposition, Dr. Heath described Dr. Elaasar as a radical Muslim, which she said was based on a conversation he had with her after Hurricane Katrina when they had to drive to Baton Rouge, in which he explained that radical Muslims believe that the time will come when Muslims are going to rise and kill all the Christians. She admitted she did not feel personally threatened by this discussion. In 2009, Dr. Heath filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination on the basis of sex and national origin. That lawsuit was ultimately abandoned.

         The evidence submitted by Dr. Heath in opposition to summary judgment includes an email chain between herself and Dr. Singleton, a female, African-American professor in the math department at SUNO. The emails run from February 4, 2010, through February 11, 2010. Of interest to the issues in this case, Dr. Singleton's last email to Dr. Heath stated that:

I have experience a paradigm shift at SUNO going from Dr. Perry, Chair to Dr. Elaasar, Chair . . . We do have a new culture of people working for SUNO. . . . Now, I am working with a different culture of people (mostly males), who has been known to be dominating to women. This happens often when working in the sciences. There is a gender differences. . . . I hate the part of my job but its reality that majority of males major in sciences and mathemtics. If you are a strong liberal woman, then your job is going to be tough.

(Rec. Doc. 70-14) (all errors in original). Earlier in the email chain, Dr. Singleton wrote:

The math unit has a long ways to go. We are the only unit that has to share the same office . . . . I do not think that this is a gender issue. It is a math unit issue. No one in the math unit responded to the biology new hire presentation. We (math unit) sat and were very quiet and wasted time that is my opinion. That is not a gender issue.

Id. (all errors in original).

         In a letter dated April 19, 2010, Dr. Heath stated that she would not participate in any further meetings of the mathematics department because she is tired of being belittled. She stated that she was “told that [she is] ‘white trash;' [she] was told to ‘shut up your mouth so I can speak damn it;' [and she has] been ignored when [she is] talking.” (Rec. Doc. 70-12, at 17). She added that she “was told that Dr. Elassar [sic] does not let me participate in any meetings such as hiring committees because ‘I talk too much for a woman.'” Id. In her deposition, Dr. Heath admitted that her knowledge of this alleged remark came to her indirectly. (Rec. Doc. 67-4, at 7). She testified that Dr. Omojola told her, “You know why they don't let you work, participate in meetings? . . .

         Because you talk too much for a woman.” Id. Dr. Heath attributes this remark to Dr. Elaasar because Dr. Omojola was very close with Dr. Elaasar. Id.

         Later in April 2010, Louise Kaltenbaugh, the Director of Alternative Certification at SUNO wrote Dr. Adegboye, Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, indicating that she had spoken to Dr. Heath and believed that Dr. Heath was experiencing professional and personal harassment. (Rec. doc. 70-16, at 1). She asked Dr. Adegboye “to look into this matter to make sure that Dr. Heath is not being ‘railroaded' due to cultural and gender biases.” Id.

         As noted above, Dr. Heath took a year-long sabbatical from 2010 through 2011 for health reasons. She contends that when she returned, the harassment continued. She asserts that Dr. Elaasar did not allow her to participate in committees, teach courses online, or teach courses above Math 151. She complains that Dr. Elaasar did not respect her academic freedom to grade her students according to her judgment. She says Dr. Elaasar refused to re-assign two classes to her during the summer semester when her previously assigned classes were cancelled. She says that after he agreed to allow her to teach two evening classes in fall 2012, he changed his mind at the last minute and gave the classes to another faculty member. She complains that Dr. Elaasar humiliated her during departmental meetings and did not allow her to finish talking. She says Dr. Elaasar undermined her to her students. She says that Dr. Elaasar did not assign her overload classes, and as a result, she was forced to seek extra employment in other places. She says that Dr. Elaasar denied her request to teach in the tutoring lab and isolated her from everything that went on in the department by working with the other teachers behind closed doors. She complains that she was not allowed to write grants although this area is a specialty for her. She complains that Dr. Elaasar would not allow her to include in her office hours those hours she spent teaching two disabled students in another teacher's office. She says Dr. Elaasar refused to provide the minutes of department meetings (it is unclear if he refused to provide these to Dr. Heath, or if he refused to provide them to anyone). She says that Dr. Elaasar refused to allow her to teach students who were failing or who needed make up tests at 7:00 a.m.

         Dr. Heath conveyed the aforementioned complaints to Dr. Adegboye, in a letter dated September 19, 2012. (Rec. Doc. 70-17, at 1-3). Notably, the letter makes no reference to her sex, national origin, race, or religion as a basis for Dr. Elaasar's actions and inactions. In fact, Dr. Heath stated that she did “not understand why he holds [her] back and strives to portrait [her] (sic) as unproductive faculty while he promotes others.”

         An undated letter that may have been written in the fall of 2012 by Dr. Heath to Dr. Mokossa, Dean of Science, complains about an incident where she approached Dr. Elaasar to convey complaints from her students about their unsatisfactory experiences in the tutoring lab. (Rec. Doc. 70-17, at 4-5). Dr. Heath writes that Dr. Elaasar became angry and told her to “stop misbehaving.” Id. She complained to Dr. Mokossa that Dr. Elaasar was “creating a hostile work environment” and that she had been experiencing “unfair treatment.” Id. She ...


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