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Carter-Obayuwana v. Howard University

January 04, 2001


Before Steadman and Schwelb, Associate Judges, and Ferren, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia

(Hon. Lee F. Satterfield, First Trial Judge) (Hon. Susan R. Winfield, Second Trial Judge) (Hon. Reggie B. Walton, Motions Judge)

Argued November 1, 2000

This case arises from allegations by the plaintiff-appellant, Dr. Ann Carter-Obayuwana, that Howard University and one of its professors, Dr. Frederick D. Harper, who supervised the plaintiff, retaliated against her for engaging in activity protected both by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000 (e) et seq. (1994 & Supp. IV 1998), and by the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (DCHRA), D.C. Code §§ 1-2501 et seq. (1999 & Supp. 2000). The plaintiff claims that, in reprisal for her complaints regarding Dr. Harper's allegedly discriminatory conduct, the University reduced her salary for a semester, then continued to pay her the lower salary for an additional year, and subsequently denied her application for reappointment to the University's Graduate Faculty.

At the initial trial of this case before Judge Lee F. Satterfield, the jurors were unable to reach a verdict regarding the plaintiff's retaliation claim. At the second trial, before Judge Susan R. Winfield, the judge excluded all evidence of the initial reduction of the plaintiff's salary, and she granted the University's motion for a directed verdict with respect to the plaintiff's remaining retaliation claims. We conclude that the judge erred in excluding evidence of the initial salary reduction. Accordingly, we reverse.


A. The dispute.

The plaintiff is a tenured Associate Professor at Howard University. Since the fall of 1974, she has been teaching graduate and post-graduate courses in the counseling and psychology program offered by the School of Education's Department of Psychoeducational Studies. During most of her time at Howard, her relationship with the University appears to have been satisfactory both to her and to the administration. Dr. Carter-Obayuwana received tenure after six years, and she served repeatedly as the Area Coordinator of the Counseling Area, i.e., in a leadership role in her department. In 1980, she was accepted without opposition to membership in the University's Graduate Faculty. *fn1

In the early 1990s, however, the plaintiff began experiencing difficulties with her superiors and with the University's administration. In 1992, Dr. Frederick D. Harper was appointed Chairman of the University's Department of Psychoeducational Studies, and in that capacity, he became the plaintiff's supervisor. By all accounts, Dr. Harper and Dr. Carter-Obayuwana have a less than harmonious relationship, although the parties disagree on what exactly caused the relations between them to sour. *fn2 In any event, sour they did, and what began as a personal quarrel developed into the legal controversy that has now made its way to this court.

During the fall of 1992, Dr. Harper admonished the plaintiff for allegedly missing office hours and for other real or perceived failings. On December 15, 1992, the plaintiff responded angrily and in writing to what she apparently regarded as a baseless reproof. In her memorandum, the plaintiff complained, inter alia, that Dr. Harper had a "sexist mentality" towards her. She stated that she "will not hesitate to seek advice and/or redress outside the University if your [Dr. Harper's] sexism . . . do[es] not cease." The plaintiff sent copies of her memorandum to Dr. Mary E. Rhodes Hoover, who was then the Dean of the School of Education, and to Dr. Joyce A. Ladner, the University's Vice- President for Academic Affairs.

This initial exchange of memoranda was followed by unsuccessful attempts at mediation by the Dean of the School of Education, and the tense situation between the two protagonists continued for several more months. *fn3 Things finally came to a head in the fall of 1993, shortly before the beginning of the fall semester. At that time, the plaintiff had made plans to attend a conference in Toronto. On August 18, 1993, the very day that the plaintiff had arranged to leave for Canada, and shortly before her scheduled departure for the airport, Dr. Harper called the plaintiff into a meeting with him and another university official. At that meeting, the plaintiff was informed that, in addition to the two courses previously assigned to her for the fall semester, she would be required to teach a third course (Vocational Theories). The academic year was scheduled to begin a few days later, which meant that the plaintiff would be expected to take over the new class prior to the date on which she had been intending to return to Washington from Toronto. Dr. Harper told the plaintiff that the additional assignment had been made because her courseload was too low while that of Dr. Alan Stills, the professor previously assigned to teach Vocational Theories, was too high. *fn4 It is undisputed that the plaintiff refused to agree, on such short notice, to teach the Vocational Theories course; she also protested that she could not adequately prepare for the assignment within the allotted time. Dr. Carter-Obayuwana apparently did offer to take over Dr. Stills' course in Multicultural Counseling. After a fruitless discussion in which neither side gave any ground, the plaintiff terminated the meeting and left for Toronto.

Upon her return to Washington on August 25, 1993, the plaintiff informed Dr. Kriner Cash, the Dean of the School of Education, of the events that had transpired immediately before her departure. She complained that she had been subjected to "ongoing harassment and unfair treatment" and that the "grievances enumerated in [her] December 15, 1992 letter remain[ed] unaddressed and unresolved." The plaintiff subsequently met with Dr. Cash, and she told him that she would not teach the Vocational Theories class because she did not have the requisite "moral and professional conscience" to do so. Meanwhile, Dr. Harper advised Dr. Portia H. Shields, the new Dean of the School of Education, that Dr. Carter-Obayuwana had refused to accept the assignment to teach the Vocational Theories class. He asserted that "Dr. Carter-Obayuwana was assigned this class more than a year ago," cf. note 4, supra, and he urged an "immediate investigation and subsequent appropriate action concerning this serious incident." *fn5

On September 2, 1993, Dr. Shields formally directed the plaintiff to assume responsibility for the Vocational Theories course. She informed the plaintiff that failure to comply with this directive would result in the imposition of discipline for neglect of duty, in accordance with the University's Faculty Handbook. *fn6 The plaintiff apparently believed that the belated assignment was part of a retaliatory scheme against her, and she persisted in her refusal to teach the class.

On September 13, 1993, the plaintiff sent another letter to Dr. Ladner, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, as a follow-up to her earlier memorandum of December 15, 1992. The reader will recall that Dr. Ladner was one of the persons to whom a copy of the 1992 memorandum had been directed. In the September 13 letter, after referring to her earlier memorandum, the plaintiff wrote that she was "saddened to inform" Dr. Ladner that "the many issues of unfairness, harassment, and discriminatory behavior on the part of Dr. Harper, as protested in that letter, still exist." She requested a meeting at which she could present documentation of the "harassment" to which she claimed to have been subjected. No meeting was arranged, however, and Dr. Ladner apparently did not respond to the plaintiff's letter of September 13, 1993.

On September 15, 1993, Dr. Shields informed the plaintiff that she intended to recommend, on the following day, that the plaintiff's salary for the 1993 fall semester be reduced by twenty percent because of the plaintiff's refusal to teach the Vocational Theories class. In October 1993, the President of the University ordered that the plaintiff's salary be reduced as proposed by Dr. Shields. Dr. Carter-Obayuwana did not formally appeal from this disciplinary action. While the salary reduction was supposed to be in effect only during the 1993 fall semester, the plaintiff's prior pay scale was not restored until April 1995. *fn7

B. The complaint to the Office of Human Rights and its aftermath.

In the meantime, on August 17, 1994, the plaintiff took her first step towards securing legal redress. On that date, she filed a complaint with the District of Columbia's Office of Human Rights (OHR). In her complaint, she alleged that the University had engaged in employment discrimination against her on account of her sex and had retaliated against her for exercising her rights. The retaliation claim included, inter alia, an allegation that her salary had been reduced for the 1993 fall semester in reprisal for having engaged in protected activities. The OHR "cross-filed" the complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On February 12, 1996, following an investigation of the plaintiff's allegations, the OHR found "no probable cause to believe that a violation of the D. C. Human Rights Act" had occurred. (Emphasis omitted.) *fn8 The plaintiff did not seek judicial review of the OHR's determination.

In May 1995, nine months after she had filed her OHR complaint, the plaintiff applied for reappointment to Howard University's Graduate Faculty. In order to be eligible for reappointment, the plaintiff was required to show, inter alia, that she had conducted research on, and had published, at least one peer-reviewed article, book, or chapter since her last appointment to the Graduate Faculty. *fn9 The plaintiff presented four articles with her application, and she asserted that each one had received peer-review. The plaintiff did not, however, submit any documentation showing that that peer-review had taken place.

On February 6, 1996, the Departmental Committee on Appointments, Promotions, and Tenure (APT) advised the plaintiff that her application for reappointment had been denied on account of her failure to submit a peer-reviewed article. Both Dr. Stills and Dr. Moses, who were aware of the plaintiff's OHR complaint, participated in the APT Committee's initial discussions, but neither of them voted on the application. *fn10 During the proceedings before the Committee, Dr. Stills expressed his belief that the plaintiff's articles had not been peer-reviewed. The record does not contain any evidence, however, that either Dr. Stills or Dr. Moses mentioned the ...

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