Williams v. Univ. of Mich., 22-cv-10296

CourtUnited States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Michigan)
Writing for the CourtGershwin A. Drain, U.S. District Court Judge.
Docket Number22-cv-10296
Decision Date08 November 2022



No. 22-cv-10296

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

November 8, 2022


Gershwin A. Drain, U.S. District Court Judge.

I. Introduction

On February 13, 2022, Plaintiff Shamilya Williams initiated the instant employment discrimination action against Defendants the University of Michigan (Plaintiff's former employer; the “University”) and U-M Work Connections (an integrated disability management program operated by the University of Michigan; “Work Connections”) (collectively referred to as “UM”). ECF No. 1. On April 6, 2022, she filed a First Amended Complaint to add as Defendants Jennifer Barnett (Plaintiff's former supervisor), Christine Fergus (a Work Connections employee),


Jerri Atkins (HR staff at the University of Michigan), Amy Grier (a Senior HR representative at the University), and Mary S. Coleman (President of the University) (collectively referred to as the “Individual Defendants”). ECF No. 2. Plaintiff alleges that she, an African American woman over the age of 40, “was wrongfully terminated from her employment as a result of her mental health disabilities, race, color, marital status and taking leave resulting from ailments qualifying her for [the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993].” Id. at PageID.11.

Presently before the Court is the Defendants' Motion to Partially Dismiss Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint. ECF No. 6. The Motion is fully briefed, and the Court held a hearing on the matter on October 31, 2022. For the following reasons, the Court will GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART Defendants' Motion to Partially Dismiss Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint (ECF No 6). Specifically, the Court will dismiss Counts I, III, IV, V, and VI in their entirety and dismiss Count II with respect to Defendants Grier and Coleman. Plaintiff's ELCRA claim (Count II) against Defendants University of Michigan, U-M Work Connections, Barnett, Fergus, and Atkins remains.


II. Background

A. Factual Background

Ms. Williams was first hired by the University of Michigan in 2004. ECF No. 2, PageID.12. She had a full-time position as an Office Assistant III. Id. In August 2015, Ms. Williams was promoted to Executive Secretary within the Department of Psychology. Id. Her role involved supporting the Department Chair, Patricia Reuter-Lorenz, and the Chief Administrator, Jennifer Barnett. Id. Over the course of her seventeen years of employment at the University, Ms. Williams did not receive any negative performance evaluations. Id. at PageID.13. Additionally, she only utilized three leaves of absence for a medical operation, maternity leave, and the mental health leave that gave rise to the instant case. Id.

Ms. Williams felt that Ms. Barnett treated her differently from other employees from the time she started as an Executive Secretary with the Psychology Department. Id. For example, in December 2015, Ms. Williams emailed Ms. Barnett to request time off during the following February to handle a family matter. Id. Ms. Barnett responded that they would discuss the request during a one-on-one meeting, which was not the normal University practice. Id. During the meeting, Ms. Barnett told Ms. Williams her email sounded like she was telling Ms. Barnett she would be taking time off instead of asking for it. Id. Ms. Williams felt “small”


after this interaction and like she could not speak with Ms. Barnett about planning for time off. Id. Ms. Williams compared her experience to that of a non-African American coworker, Lisa Boehr, who stated that she had asked for time off with much less lead time without issue. Id.

Ms. Williams alleges that she has “experienced similar micro-aggressions, cultural insensitivities, and disparate treatment” from Ms. Barnett since the December 2015 leave request. Id. For example, in 2018, Ms. Williams informed Ms. Barnett that her mother, whom Ms. Williams cared for, was terminally ill. Id. After her mother passed away in October 2018, Ms. Williams requested bereavement leave, but Ms. Barnett encouraged her to take less time than requested. Id. Ms. Williams is unaware of any other employee in her department being told to take less bereavement leave than requested. Id.

Ms. Williams claims she “endured years of disparate and hostile treatment” until “she was pushed to the point of mental breakdown.” Id. As such, in 2019, Ms. Williams began monthly counseling sessions with the University of Michigan Faculty and Staff Student Counseling Office. Id. However, Ms. Williams' therapist discontinued sessions with her in June 2020 because she believed a conflict of interest had arisen and Ms. Williams needed more regular and intensive treatment.


Id. at PageID.14. Ms. Williams then started weekly therapy with Tracey Newbern, LMSW. Id.

In March of 2020, the University of Michigan, like most of the rest of the world, began to shelter in place in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Id. Ms. Williams alleges that, because the University failed to properly execute a work-from-home policy, Ms. Barnett disguised her increased discrimination and hostility towards Ms. Williams as managerial oversight. Id. For example, Ms. Barnett required Ms. Williams to have weekly one-on-one meetings with her as a condition precedent to working from home, even though Ms. Williams white coworkers only had to participate in biweekly meetings. Id. at PageID.18. Ms. Barnett also required Ms. Williams to submit her work schedule for pre-approval but did not make any other employee do so until Ms. Williams complained of disparate treatment. Id. Finally, Ms. Barnett would not permit Ms. Williams to use her COVID-19 leave while she adjusted to handling her child's remote schooling and underlying medical condition, even though other employees were not similarly restricted. Id., Id. at PageID.14. She went so far as to threaten to fire Ms. Williams if she did not “figure out and get childcare.” Id. at PageID.18. Ms. Barnett then made a public statement about remote work, use of COVID-19 leave, and timeliness of assignments that Ms. Williams thought was directed at her. Id. at PageID.14.


On July 12, 2020, Ms. Williams contacted Marc Sorace, an African American Staff HR contact and Staff Diversity Equity and Inclusion Liaison at the University, about her issues with Ms. Barnett over the years. Id. Ms. Williams, the only African American regular staff member who worked under Ms. Barnett, shared that she “felt targeted, isolated, stressed, micromanaged, discriminated against and not afforded the same work flexibilities or treat[ment] as her white co-workers.” Id. Mr. Sorace took steps to set up a meeting with Ms. Barnett to discuss Ms. Williams' complaints, but Jerri Atkins, a non-African American Staff HR contact with a close relationship with Ms. Barnett, intervened and removed Mr. Sorace from the matter. Id.

On September 16, 2020, Ms. Williams' healthcare providers (Tracy Newbern, LMSW; Ernesto F. Figuroa, MD; and Sherrie Tefend, MD) determined she needed to take a leave of absence from work because she had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and major depression. Id. at PageID.15. Ms. Williams provided her medical records and leave request to U-M Work Connections in accordance with the University's employee policy. Id. Christine Fergus, the Work Connections Administrator assigned to Ms. Williams' case, retained Calmeze H. Dudley, Jr., MD. and Michigan IME, LLC to conduct an Independent Medical Examination (IME). Id. After reviewing the Work Connections file on, and conducting a telehealth examination of, Ms. Williams, Dr. Dudley concluded in an


eight-page report that Ms. Williams could immediately return to her full work schedule. Id. When Ms. Williams asked about the appeal process or the University's policy on the use of IME, Ms. Atkins directed her to the University's Standard Practice Guides (SPG). Id. However, HR later admitted to Ms. Williams that no policy existed for IME use. Id. Nonetheless, the University relied on Dr. Dudley's conclusion that Ms. Williams could return to work immediately, despite Ms. Williams' condition deteriorating to the point that she was committed. Id. at PageID.16. During Ms. Williams' commitment, Ms. Barnett sent her several text messages and emails asking about her return and tasks Ms. Barnett wanted her to complete. Id.

Ms. Williams filed a discrimination claim against Ms. Barnett with the University's Office for Institutional Equity (OIE) on December 14, 2020. Id. The OIE had not completed its investigation before Ms. Williams was terminated on March 9, 2021. Id. at PageID.16. Ms. Atkins and Ms. Barnett informed Ms. Williams of her termination via memorandum, indicating that her termination was due to her repeated medically unexcused absences. ECF No. 2-1, PageID.33.

On March 5,2021, Ms. Williams filed a charge of discrimination with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. ECF No. 2, PageID.16. Ms. Williams only


checked the box alleging that she had faced disability discrimination. ECF No. 2-1, PageID.29. She also wrote the following in her summary:

I began working for the above-named employer on or about April 26, 2004, as a Office Services Assistant. My current position is a Executive Assistant.
Within the last 300 days I have continued to request a reasonable accommodation from my employer due to my disability. I have provided countless medical documentation from my treating physician to corroborate my disability and the restrictions needed. Nevertheless, on or about February 26, 2021, I was threatened by my employer with a disciplinary review which could include possible disciplinary actions, including termination.

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