Heiat v. Eastern Montana College, 94-572

Decision Date04 March 1996
Docket NumberNo. 94-572,94-572
Parties, 107 Ed. Law Rep. 1020 Nafisseh HEIAT, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. EASTERN MONTANA COLLEGE and Montana Commissioner of Higher Education, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Appeal from District Court of the Thirteenth Judicial District, In and for the County of Yellowstone; William J. Speare, Judge presiding.

Rosemary C. Boschert; Boschert Law Firm, Billings, for Appellant.

LeRoy H. Schramm, Montana University System, Helena, for Respondent.

LEAPHART, Justice.

Nafisseh Heiat appeals from an order of the Thirteenth Judicial District Court, Yellowstone County, granting Eastern Montana College and the Montana Commissioner of Higher Education (EMC) summary judgment, concluding that EMC was not liable for sexual discrimination in employment. We reverse.

The following issue is raised on appeal:

Did the District Court err in granting EMC's motion for summary judgment?

Plaintiff, Dr. Nafisseh Heiat Ph.D. (Nafisseh), and her husband Dr. Abbas Heiat Ph.D. (Abbas) are employed as associate professors in the Department of Accounting and Information Systems at EMC. Both Nafisseh and Abbas possess Ph.D. degrees from Portland State University. The District Court determined that they, as faculty members at EMC, perform substantially the same work. Abbas was hired by EMC in 1987 as an assistant professor in the information systems program. At the time Abbas was hired, EMC had recently lost its only faculty member in the information systems program who held a Ph.D. EMC advertised for the position listing a Ph.D. as a qualification. EMC offered Abbas the position.

Based on Abbas' "terminal" doctoral degree and experience, his starting salary under the collective bargaining agreement then in effect would have been $20,491. However, the collective bargaining agreement authorized the EMC administration to offer higher salaries to prospective faculty members in extraordinary recruitment situations. Fearing that Abbas would not accept the position for $20,491, EMC offered him in excess of $30,000. Ultimately, after additional negotiation, Abbas accepted the position at a starting salary of $40,000.

In 1988, EMC advertised for another faculty opening in the information systems program. The posting listed a Ph.D. or equivalent as a qualification. Nafisseh received her Ph.D. in 1987, and applied for this position with EMC. She was offered the position with a staring salary of $27,190. Although she requested an additional adjustment to the starting salary, her request was denied and she accepted the position for the offered salary. Both Nafisseh and Abbas have received periodic salary increases, as mandated by the collective bargaining agreement and, during the 1992-93 academic year, Nafisseh earned $39,049 while Abbas earned $54,575. This disparity is due entirely to the difference in their starting salaries.

In April of 1991, Nafisseh filed a complaint with the Montana Human Rights Commission alleging that she had been discriminated against based on her sex and that she had not been given equal pay for equal work. The Montana Human Rights Commission issued a right to sue letter. In her District Court complaint, Nafisseh alleged violations of the Montana Human Rights Act, the Government Code of Fair Practices, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and the Equal Pay Act. On June 24, 1994, the District Court granted EMC's motion for summary judgment. Nafisseh appeals from this order.

Our standard in reviewing a district court's grant of a motion for summary judgment is de novo. Minnie v. City of Roundup, (1993), 257 Mont. 429, 431, 849 P.2d 212, 214. That is, we review an order of summary judgment using the same criteria as the district court; we are guided by Rule 56, M.R.Civ.P. Chilberg v. Rose, (Mont.1995), 903 P.2d 1377, 1378, 52 St.Rep. 1038, 1039 (citing Minnie, 849 P.2d at 214). Thus, we determine whether a genuine issue of material fact exists and whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Minnie, 849 P.2d at 214. Summary judgment is an extreme remedy and should never be substituted for a trial if a material fact controversy exists. Howard v. Conlin Furniture No. 2, Inc., (1995), 272 Mont. 433, 436, 901 P.2d 116, 118-19 (citing Hagen v. Dow Chem. Co., (1993), 261 Mont. 487, 491, 863 P.2d 413, 416).

A party seeking summary judgment has the burden of establishing a complete absence of any genuine factual issues. Howard, 901 P.2d at 118. In light of the pleadings and the evidence before the district court, there must be no material issue of fact remaining which would entitle a non-moving party to recover. Howard, 901 P.2d at 118. Once the moving party has met its burden, the party opposing the summary judgment motion must present material and substantial evidence, rather than conclusory or speculative statements, to raise a genuine issue of material fact. Howard, 901 P.2d at 119. In addition, all reasonable inferences that might be drawn from the offered evidence should be drawn in favor of the party who opposed summary judgment. Howard, 901 P.2d at 119 (citing Cereck v. Albertson's, Inc., (1981), 195 Mont. 409, 411, 637 P.2d 509, 511).

EMC contends that it was willing to pay Abbas a higher salary than that contemplated in the collective bargaining agreement because EMC had a pressing need to have a faculty member with a Ph.D. in the information systems program. EMC asserts that "[o]nce the discipline was 'anchored' with a Ph.D. the need for a subsequent Ph.D. was lessened and, given the tight budget the College has labored with for several years, the College felt no need to pay a premium for a second Ph.D. in the same discipline."

Abbas and Nafisseh assert that the rationale of "anchoring" the department was not mentioned to either of them as a factor in setting salaries when they applied for and accepted positions on the faculty at EMC. Further, in an affidavit, Abbas stated that even after he was hired by EMC, he was not told that he occupied an "anchor position" nor was he assigned extra duties or responsibilities. Nafisseh stated that at the time she was hired she was told that she could not be paid a high salary because of the tight budget at EMC.

Dr. Ronald Sexton, vice-president for academic affairs at EMC, asserted that the term "anchor position" was essentially administrative jargon and, as a result, it is quite possible that neither Abbas nor Nafisseh had heard the term. Further, Sexton contended that because EMC already had Abbas as a Ph.D. on its information systems program faculty, EMC was not willing to pay a premium to hire another Ph.D. and that is the reason that Nafisseh was offered a lower starting salary.

According to the United States Supreme Court's burden shifting analysis employed in discrimination cases, once the plaintiff has, by a preponderance of the evidence, proved a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to the defendant "to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employee's rejection." Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, (1981), 450 U.S. 248, 252-53, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 1093, 67 L.Ed.2d 207, 214-15 (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, (1973), 411 U.S. 792, 802, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 1824, 36 L.Ed.2d 668). Should the defendant carry this burden, "the plaintiff must then have an opportunity to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the legitimate reasons offered by the defendant were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for discrimination." Burdine, 450 U.S. at 253, 101 S.Ct. at 1093. Recently, the Supreme Court refined this stage, stating that "a reason cannot be proved to be a 'pretext for discrimination ' unless it is shown both that the reason was false, and that discrimination was the real reason." St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, (1993), 509 U.S. 502, 515, 113 S.Ct. 2742, 2752, 125 L.Ed.2d 407, 422.

At all times, the plaintiff retains the burden of persuasion and, after the defendant has articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, the plaintiff must have the opportunity to demonstrate that the proffered reason was not the true reason for the employment decision. Burdine, 450 U.S. at 256, 101 S.Ct. at 1095. At this point, the burden merges with the ultimate burden of persuading the court that the plaintiff has been a victim of intentional discrimination. St. Mary's Honor Ctr., 509 U.S. at 515, 113 S.Ct. at 2752; Burdine, 450 U.S. at 256, 101 S.Ct. at 1095. The plaintiff succeeds either directly by persuading the court that a discriminatory reason more likely motivated the employer or indirectly by showing that the employer's proffered explanation is unworthy of credence. Burdine, 450 U.S. at 256, 101 S.Ct. at 1095.

On a motion for summary judgment in discrimination cases, the McDonnell Douglas order of proof and shifting of burdens at trial must be viewed in light of the traditional test for granting a motion for summary judgment. Brown v. Parker-Hannifin Corp., (10th Cir.1984), 746 F.2d 1407, 1411. That test is whether the moving party has demonstrated that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Rule 56(c), M.R.Civ.P.; Howard, 901 P.2d at 118-19. As the Seventh Circuit stated, "[a]s a general rule, questions of motive and intent are inappropriate for summary judgment." Box v. A & P Tea Co., (7th Cir.1985), 772 F.2d 1372, 1378, cert. denied, 478 U.S. 1010, 106 S.Ct. 3311, 92 L.Ed.2d 724 (1986) (citing Cedillo v. International Ass'n of Bridge & Structural Iron Workers, (7th Cir.1979), 603 F.2d 7, 11). The Box court stated:

Consequently, a defendant in a discrimination case is not entitled to summary judgment if the plaintiff submits evidence from which a court can reasonably infer that the articulated legitimate reason is, in fact, a pretext for...

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