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Roof v. Howard University

August 17, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ellen Segal Huvelle United States District Judge


Plaintiff Mary Roof, a Caucasian professor at Howard University, has sued Howard for racial discrimination, alleging a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), D.C. Code §§ 2-1401.01 et seq. Before the Court is defendant's motion to dismiss or in the alternative for judgment on the pleadings. As explained herein, the Court will grant defendant's motion.


Howard is a "historically black" university with a predominantly African American faculty and student body. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 2, 15.) Plaintiff has been employed at Howard for approximately eighteen years, and is currently a tenured Graduate Associate Professor of Spanish and faculty member of Howard's Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. (Id. ¶¶ 17, 18.) Professor Ian Smart, who is of African descent, is also a faculty member of Howard's Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and a tenured Professor of Spanish. (Id. ¶¶ 19, 20.)

Between January 9, 2006 and January 12, 2006, Smart sent a series of five e-mails addressed to approximately forty-six Howard graduate students, staff, and faculty, including plaintiff. (Id. ¶¶ 23-29; Answer Exs. A-E.) The first e-mail contained a critique of the Modern Languages and Literatures department's leadership, including an accusation that plaintiff*fn1 doubted "the viability and even the validity of any graduate program in modern languages and literature at a 'Negro' college." (Am. Compl. ¶ 24; Answer Ex. A.) A second e-mail on January 10 referred to plaintiff and two other professors as "blind mice" in their potential capacity to administer the department, and it recounted a "nightmare" in which plaintiff was a "brigadier general" in charge of the department. (Am. Compl. ¶ 26; Answer Ex. B.) The following morning, Smart sent a third e-mail describing plaintiff as an "apparently Caucasian woman in her sixties" and a "mediocre scholar," and suggesting that she "enjoy[ed] some special privileged status" at "Uncle Tom's Campus." (Am. Compl. ¶ 27; Answer Ex. C.) This e-mail copied sections of an earlier e-mail from plaintiff demanding retraction of the two prior e-mails and threatening legal action if he did not. (Answer Ex. C.) Two hours later, Smart sent a fourth e-mail written in dialect: "Deer Kolleegees: Ah done wrong. . . . Ah done gone and get Miss Mary mad. . . . So ah trow mehself at Miss Mary feet. Ah beg she to give me a break dis time. Ah is just one dumb niggerman from de Islands. . . . Grovelengly yours, Uncle Ian de Pan-Plantation Darkie . . . P.S. . . . And don't forget about the book signing this Saturday at 2:00p.m. in KARIBU BOOKS, THE MALL AT PRINCE GEORGE'S. I promise to put on a great show. Tell everybody about it. It will be a blast." (Am. Compl. ¶ 28; Answer Ex. D.) Smart's fifth e-mail on January 12 claimed that Howard's founder intended only to "train Negroes to fit into white society as second-class citizens," that Howard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences "enforces this approach," and that plaintiff has "repeatedly affirmed her adherence" to this philosophy. (Am. Compl. ¶ 29; Answer Ex. E.) The e-mail concluded by inviting the reader to "draw the conclusion for yourself." (Answer Ex. E.)

The following day (January 13), Professor James Davis, Chairman of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, sent Smart an e-mail in which he "appealed" to Smart to "consider stop sending the type of emails you have been sending in the past two weeks." (Answer Ex. K.) Smart replied later that morning: "No problem, James. No more e-mails." (Id.) The next week, plaintiff sent Davis a letter "detailing Smart's harassment and requesting that Howard intervene and take corrective action." (Am. Compl. ¶ 34.) Davis acknowledged receipt of the letter on January 25, 2006 (id. ¶ 35), and the following day, he sent a letter to Dr. James Donaldson, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences asking for advice in dealing with plaintiff's complaint. (Id. ¶ 36; Answer Ex. H.)

On March 11, 2006, plaintiff reported the allegedly discriminatory harassment involving Smart's e-mails to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission ("EEOC"), and the following month she filed a formal complaint of discrimination. (Id. ¶¶ 37-38.) The EEOC issued a Letter of Determination in December, finding reasonable cause to believe that Howard violated Title VII because it knowingly failed to respond to harassment creating a hostile work environment. (Id. ¶ 40.) In January 2007, Roof received a Notice of the Right to Sue from the EEOC. (Id. ¶ 42.)

In April 2007, nearly fifteen months after the original series of e-mails, Smart sent two additional e-mails which plaintiff claims were part of the same pattern of harassment. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 30, 31; Answer Exs. F, G; Pl.'s Opp'n at 4, 8.) These e-mails apparently followed the decision of a three-member faculty panel, which included plaintiff, to reject Smart's appointment to the Department's Graduate Faculty. (See Answer Ex. F; Def.'s Mem. at 7.) In an e-mail dated April 2, 2007, addressed to approximately thirty-five Howard faculty and staff members, Smart lambasted the teaching methods of members of the panel, including plaintiff, and accused them of having "long memories." (Am. Compl. ¶ 30; Answer Ex. F.) Plaintiff complained to Davis about this e-mail the same day. (Am. Compl. ¶ 44; Answer Ex. I.) Smart sent another e-mail to a group of approximately forty-nine faculty members on April 8, 2007, which referred to plaintiff as a "Caucasian female in her sixties," criticized the academic work of one of plaintiff's graduate student mentees as "woefully deficient," and alleged that plaintiff has a "habit of trotting out her black graduate students to put on a show." (Am. Compl. ¶ 31; Answer Ex. G.)

In response, plaintiff immediately sent Davis an e-mail complaining that the "unprovoked" "harassment of a student by [Smart]" cannot "go unchallenged," imploring Davis to "act now." (Am. Compl. ¶ 45; Answer Ex. J.) In a formal letter dated the same day, Davis wrote Smart expressing "major concern" that the April 8 e-mail "embarrassed" a graduate student in a "public forum." (Answer Ex. M.) After warning Smart that plaintiff was pursuing legal action against Smart and Howard, Davis concluded the letter by "ask[ing] that [Smart] stop sending emails regarding student performance," and stating his belief that such e-mails "are in violation of privacy rules and regulations." (Id.) Davis also sent Smart an e-mail on April 9, 2007, declaring himself "angry and disappointed" over Smart's April 8 e-mail. (Answer Ex. L.) Smart responded by accusing Davis of "hiding behind the students," and claiming that his actions were "in the best interest of all of [.] Howard University."*fn2 (Id.)

In the midst of the April 2007 e-mail exchange, plaintiff filed suit against both Howard and Ian Smart under Title VII and the DCHRA, alleging a racially discriminatory hostile work environment. Plaintiff subsequently moved for voluntary dismissal of defendant Smart pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1). Defendant has now moved for dismissal, or in the alternative for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that plaintiff has failed to allege a prima facie case under Title VII or the DCHRA because Smart's seven e-mails are insufficient as a matter of law to rise to the level of a hostile work environment. (Def.'s Mem. at 9.) Defendant also argues that Howard cannot be held vicariously liable for Smart's conduct in any event because it took appropriate corrective action in response to Smart's e-mails. (Id. at 15.)


I. Legal Standard

A complaint must be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedurefor failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted if it fails to plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007). At this stage, all reasonable factual inferences must be construed in plaintiff's favor, and all allegations in the complaint are presumed true. Maljack Prods., Inc., v. Motion Picture Ass'n of Am., Inc., 52 F.3d 373, 375 (D.C. Cir. 1995). "However, the court need not accept inferences drawn by plaintiff[] if such inferences are unsupported by the facts set out in the complaint. Nor must the court accept legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations." Kowal v. MCI Comm'cns. Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994)). To survive a motion to dismiss, the factual allegations of the plaintiff "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atl., 127 S.Ct. at 1965. A motion for judgment on the pleadings is governed by the same standard as that under Rule 12(b)(6). Egilman v. Keller & Heckman, ...

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