Thomas v. Salem State Univ. Found. Inc.

Decision Date18 October 2011
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 11-10748-DJC
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts


I. Introduction

Plaintiff Courtney Thomas ("Thomas") brings this action against Salem State University Foundation, Inc. ("SSU")1 and others, alleging that he was wrongly expelled from a graduate program at SSU as a result of racial discrimination and retaliation. Thomas also seeks leave to proceed in forma pauperis. For the reasons set forth below: (1) the motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis is GRANTED; (2) Thomas is directed to show cause why all claims, except two claims against SSU, should not be dismissed; and (3) the Court orders that a summons issue as to SSU.

II. Background
A. Factual Allegations

The following summary is based upon the relevant allegations of the complaint.

Thomas is a Black male who is a teacher of English as a Second Language. In 2009, Thomas matriculated in the Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Second Language program ("MAT ESL") at SSU. His goal was to receive a state license to teach ESL to high school students. During the first semester of the program, Thomas took three classes. He received a final grade of "A" in one course, an "A-" in the second course, and a "B+" in the third course. Thomas believed that a B+ was substandard for a graduate student and worried that the grade would impair his chances at pursuing a Ph.D. in linguistics. Thomas spoke with another male student in the class who is not Black, who told Thomas that he had not really understood the course but had done well in the class. Thomas believed that he deserved a better grade because he had completed all of the course requirements, including doing all of the reading, participating in class, turning in all assignments and completing a challenging group project. Thomas approached the professor, Ellen Rintell ("Rintell"), who was one of the co-coordinators of the MAT ESL program, to complain that the grade did not reflect his ability or industry and that he did not understand why he did not receive an "A." Rintell had "no real answer" for Thomas. Compl. ¶ 17. Thomas expressed his concern the grade was "based on 'emotion' as it pertained [to] [his] membership in a protected class and whatever insufficiencies some may ascribe to such members." Id. ¶ 17(b).

In spring 2010, Thomas enrolled in at least two courses, including English 771. Julie Whitlow ("Whitlow"), the other co-coordinator of the MAT ESL program, was the instructor of the course. Whitlow required the students to write weekly and monthly responses to chapters and unitscovered in the course and Thomas received a score of 10 out of 10 on these assignments. During one class period, however, Thomas joked with a female student that the student was not "deep enough" to understand a book Thomas had written. Id. ¶ 20. Thomas' "way of talking, being and especially joking is in keeping with the ways of many members of [his] protected class." Id. Whitlow found the joke to be offensive, although the female student later reassured Thomas that she was not bothered by it. Thomas received a 6 out of 10 on the next assignment. Thomas told Whitlow that he believed the low score was in retaliation for his joke. Whitlow denied the allegation. Thomas "stopped doing almost all the classwork because [he] felt [he] was being discriminated against." Id. Thomas later submitted a letter "up the chain of command" regarding the incident. Id. He was allowed to redo the assignment and wrote a letter "clearing" Whitlow. Id. Although he ultimately received an "A" in the class, "what all this meant to [him] was that if [he] said something that an instructor did not understand or like, she was going to retaliate against [him]." Id.

In March 2010, Thomas sent an email to Rintell concerning discrimination. See Compl., Exs. ("Email #2"; document # 1-1, p. 5). Thomas stated therein that, when he attended Boston Latin High School in the 1970s, a Black and a White student copied each other's work and submitted virtually identical assignments. The Black student received a "B+" and the White student received an "A," even though the teacher could not offer any explanation for the difference in grading. Thomas also stated that, before he came to the United States, he skipped sixth grade but when he arrived in the United States, he was no longer an "A" student. Thomas also pointed out that he had received a four-year scholarship to Stonehill College, but that his English teachers said his writingwas "just OK" even though Thomas had written a 630,000 page book.2 Id. Then Thomas posed the question, "If I were to say to Salem's Academic Dean that a teacher is being biased (deliberately for personal reasons, or unconsciously), what standards would have to be met to prove something as subjective as 'teacher bias in evaluating student performance' based on difference in tastes and intellectual approach? I am NOT referring to any particular class or teacher." Id.

In the complaint, Thomas asserts that, at that time, he should have been advised by one of the MAT ESL program co-coordinators, or by another representative of SSU, that he could have complained about discrimination to the campus office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") or the Assistant Dean of Students.

Thomas claims that the email to Rintell was not the only complaint of discrimination that he made to SSU administration:

I brought the [discrimination] to Salem State University's attention very early on when I first felt discriminated against. I repeatedly brought the issue to Salem State University's attention. I gave Salem State University sufficient time to try to address my complaint. Salem State University ignored my complaints, allowed the harm to continue unaddressed, and so contributed to the worsening of the problem.

Compl. ¶ 31. Thomas felt "defenseless against the harm the discriminatory evaluations were rendering." Id. ¶ 23. "The cultural isolation [he] felt each time [he] went to class at Salem State University, the dismissive attitude of some classmates and some teachers . . . all contributed to a feeling that [he] was on [his] own." Id. ¶ 25. In an effort to "tak[e] control of the situation," he repeatedly challenged his professors "to give more specific and clear instructions of what was expected of student classwork, and how this classwork would be evaluated, every step of the way." Id. ¶ 26. He asked how many citations had to be included in an assignment, the number of pagesa report had to be, what the structure of a writing assignment should be, how many sentences had to be in each paragraph, and how turning in an assignment late would affect his grade. He withdrew from a course because he "felt concern about the last minute substitute professor on these issues." Id. ¶ 27.

In the spring 2010, Thomas received a score of 4 out of 10 on an assignment in English 771, the course with Whitlow. Thomas challenged the score. Ultimately, it did not affect his grade and he received an "A" in the course.

In July 2010, Thomas took a one-week intensive course entitled Methods of Teaching Adult ELS ("EDU 722") from Heidi Perez ("Perez"). At the time, Thomas believed that EDU 722 was the proper course to take toward receiving a credential to teach high school. SSU's published list of course requirements for a MAT ESL (Licensure Track) indicated that graduate students were required to take either EDU 722 or EDU 792, the latter being a course entitled Methods and Approaches in Teaching English as a Second Language. See Compl., Exs. ("Evidence #7B"; document 1-1, p. 17). Thomas later discovered that EDU 792, not EDU 722, was the appropriate course for the credential that he sought. Thomas alleges that had he been assigned an advisor, he would not have made this mistake. However, Thomas contends that he did not have an advisor, even though he had requested one and other students who are not Black and/or male were assigned an advisor.

Thomas did not complete the final in EDU 722 by the deadline set by Perez because he was "spent" from working, commuting, and "worry[ing] about the discrimination." Compl. ¶ 37. He received an "Incomplete" grade which was eventually automatically changed in to an "F." In August 2010, Perez assured him that he could still complete the work and that she would evenreview a preliminary draft of the assignment.3 Seven months "slipped by" without Thomas completing the assignment. Id.

In December 2010, Thomas took an education course from Sarah Dietrich ("Dietrich"). Thomas completed the assigned work and participated in class. Dietrich stated that she would allow Thomas to submit a draft of the final assignment. Thomas submitted a draft, Dietrich reviewed it and suggested changes. Thomas made the changes that Dietrich suggested but only received a "B" in the class. He spoke to Dietrich about his grade. She changed his grade to a "B+," but he still felt that the grade was discriminatory.

In January 2011, Thomas received a letter from the Assistant Dean of the Graduate School informing Thomas that he would be expelled on February 12, 2011 unless he explained the circumstances surrounding his failing grade in Perez's class. This letter spurred Thomas to complete the final for EDU 722 .

On February 8, 2011, an administrative assistant to Carol Glod ("Glod"), the Dean of the Graduate School, called Thomas and asked him to meet with Glod. The administrative assistant would not reveal the purpose of the meeting, but Thomas agreed to the meeting. Present at the meeting were Thomas, Glod, and Shawn Newton, Assistant Dean of Students ("Newton"). Glod told Thomas that he was making people "uncomfortable" with his complaints of discrimination. Id. ¶ 41. During this meeting, Thomas told Glod that Perez had assured him that he could pass in his assignment late, including...

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