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“Reverend” Discrimination Case Will Go To Trial

Published by on June 4, 2008

In an update on our earlier post on the “Reverend” discrimination case, Andrews v. Virginia Union University, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied the University’s motion for summary judgment as to almost all of Rev. Andrews’ claims, allowing them to proceed to trial.  The Court’s memorandum opinion is here. The […]

In an update on our earlier post on the “Reverend” discrimination case, Andrews v. Virginia Union University, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied the University’s motion for summary judgment as to almost all of Rev. Andrews’ claims, allowing them to proceed to trial.  The Court’s memorandum opinion is here.

The Court summarized its findings as to Count I, religious discrimination relating to the use of the title “Reverend” by Andrews as follows:

“In Count I, Andrews alleges disparate treatment in that she was generally treated unfairly and specifically not reappointed as Chair of the Department of Social Work. She has offered evidence that this treatment was based on her religious belief and practice to be referred to as Reverend. Andrews does not provide direct evidence of a purpose to discriminate but she has provided circumstantial evidence of sufficiently probative force to raise a triable issue of fact. Through various depositions and affidavits, Andrews has provided evidence that, following her objection to the new academic policy, which prohibited the use of the title Reverend, various individuals at VUU such as, Anderson and James, made derogatory statements about Andrews, took various actions adverse to her, and expressed their desire to “get rid” of her. This evidence provides sufficient probative force to raise an issue of genuine fact regarding whether Andrews was discriminated against on account of her religion and whether Anderson and James acted with intent to discriminate. There also is evidence from which a jury could find that Andrews’ alleged belief and practice is merely a personal preference; that VUU did not discriminate against Andrews; and that VUU had legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for its actions. There being factual disputes over material issues, the motion for summary judgment on Count I will be denied.”

The Court followed similar reasoning in denying the University’s motion for summary judgment as to Andrews’ retaliation claim (that the University did not renew her contract to retaliate against her for complaining about the “no Reverend” title policy) and filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC:

“there is evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find that Andrews was disciplined for refusing to follow the employee policy that prohibited the use of the title Reverend. Andrews clearly refused to implement the new policy. Following this refusal and Andrews’ complaints about the policy, Andrews suffered employment-related treatment at the hands of the employer which a reasonable jury could construe to be discipline for engaging in protected activity. Andrews was not reappointed as Chair of the Department of Social Work and she suffered other mistreatment by VUU. While there is a dispute respecting whether Andrews would have been reappointed if she had not protested the policy, a reasonable jury could find that the failure to reappoint Andrews was VUU’s way of disciplining her. This is true especially in light of several comments made by James and Anderson in which they discuss “getting rid” of Andrews in context of Andrews’ conduct in objecting to the policy.”

The Court also allowed Andrews’ failure to accommodate claim based on religion and her defamation claim against the University to proceed to trial.  As to the defamation claim, testimony from witnesses that the University Chair that allegedly made the defamatory statements about Andrews would refer to Andrews with statements such as “people around here make me want to kill them,” “stupid stubborn ass bitch,” “I can’t stand that bitch,” “she makes me sick,” were sufficient for the Court to find a triable issue of fact on the University’s defense that the statements were subject to a qualified privilege.

So what can employers take away from this decision?  The one thing that practically leaps out from this decision is the incredible hostility between the plaintiff and her co-workers at the University.  That hostility led to many comments being made that are quoted in the Court’s opinion and which helped convince the Court there were triable issues for a jury here.  This kind of hostility — and the derogatory and inflamatory comments that go with it — should be a red light warning signal to HR professionals and supervisors that intervention is necessary.

We will keep readers posted of any developments in the case.  It is set for trial in July.

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