Harris v. Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA B. MICHELLE HARRIS, Plaintiff, v. Case No. 1:19-cv-02915 (TNM) TRUSTEES OF THE UNIVERSITY OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants. MEMORANDUM OPINION This case concerns a long-running feud between a college professor and her dean. Dr. Michelle Harris sues her employer, the University of the District of Columbia (“UDC”), claiming that her boss repeatedly retaliated against her for speaking out about racial discrimination, financial mismanagement, and bureaucratic failures at the school. Defendants UDC and Dean Sabine O’Hara (collectively, “the University”) deny the allegations and move for summary judgment. Harris lacks any viable claims. Several are legally insufficient or conceded. And she otherwise fails to present evidence creating a triable issue on the retaliation that she allegedly faced for whistleblowing. The Court will therefore grant the University’s motion. I. BACKGROUND UDC is a historically black public university in Washington, D.C. See Defs.’ Am. Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (“Defs.’ SUMF”) ¶ 3, ECF No. 34. 1 Harris, an African 1 All exhibit numbers refer to the numbered attachments to the CM/ECF filings, not the title of any documents. All page citations refer to the pagination generated by the Court’s CM/ECF system. Unless otherwise stated, Plaintiff admits the University’s facts as undisputed. See generally Pl.’s Statement of Material Facts in Genuine Dispute (“Pl.’s SOMF”), ECF No. 36-2. American, began her career at UDC in 2006 as an Assistant Professor in the nutrition and dietetics program. Id. ¶¶ 1, 7, 17. Four years later, UDC founded its College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, and Environmental Sciences (“CAUSES”) as the University’s landgrant college. Id. ¶ 9. CAUSES has two halves: the landgrant side—funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) grant money—and the academic side. Id. ¶¶ 10–11. UDC folded Harris’s nutrition and dietetics program into CAUSES, and eventually moved it under the Department of Health, Nursing, and Nutrition (“HNN”) on the academic side. Id. ¶¶ 23–24. Harris viewed herself as the “custodian” of the nutrition and dietetics program, id. ¶ 223, which was one of three disciplines in HNN, id. ¶ 52. UDC appointed Sabine O’Hara as the Dean of CAUSES and Director of Landgrant Programs in March 2012. Id. ¶ 14. O’Hara is Caucasian and a U.S. citizen who immigrated here from Germany. Id. ¶ 2. The relationship between O’Hara and Harris got off to a rocky start. Several months after O’Hara arrived, Harris wrote to the Secretary of the USDA on official UDC letterhead to report funding issues at the school. Id. ¶¶ 27, 30. The letter implored the Secretary to identify new funding sources for her students and requested a meeting on a litany of topics, including “structural issues” on campus. Pl.’s Mem. in Opp’n to Defs.’ Mot. for Summ. J. (“Pl.’s Opp’n”) Ex. 12 at 2–4, ECF No. 36-12. O’Hara met with Harris and admonished her for bypassing proper UDC channels to contact USDA directly. Defs.’ SUMF ¶¶ 30–31. Harris recalls that in that meeting O’Hara said that Harris “lacked social …

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