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Campbell v. Bristol Community College

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

August 22, 2019



          F. Dennis Saylor IV United States District Judge.

         This is an action for workplace discrimination and retaliation. Plaintiff Marlyne M. Campbell, an African-American woman, alleges that her former employer, defendant Bristol Community College, discriminated against her on the basis of her race and retaliated against her by firing her after she complained about the use of a term she believed to be a racial slur.

         Campbell was hired as a probationary employee in August 2012. Within weeks, according to the college, there were significant issues with her work performance, as well as questions about her behavior. By December 2012, she had been terminated.

         Campbell had been hired pursuant to a federal grant in support of a program called Massachusetts Community College Workforce Development Transformation Agenda, or MACCWFDTA. Apparently due to the cumbersome name and unpronounceable nine-letter acronym, people at the college (and elsewhere) referred to it as the “Mack Daddy” program.

         Upon her arrival at the college, Campbell began objecting to the use of the term “Mack Daddy” on the ground that it represented a racial slur. According to the evidence, “Mack Daddy” is a street slang word with several different meanings, one of which is “pimp.” The evidence that the term has a racial connotation is certainly thin, and there is no evidence that any official or employee of the college knew of any such connotation, or even that it was an offensive term. In any event, whenever a college official or employee used the term in her presence, she complained, and there is no evidence that any such person persisted in using the term after she did so.

         Campbell now contends that she was discriminated against on the basis of race, and that she was terminated because of her complaints about the use of the term “Mack Daddy.” For the reasons set forth below, summary judgment will be granted to the college as to her claim for discrimination, but denied as to the claim for retaliation.

         I. Background

         The facts set forth below are undisputed except as noted.

         A. Factual Background

         On August 20, 2012, Marlyne Campbell was hired by Bristol Community College as a “Career Development Counselor.” (Def. SOF ¶ 8, 93).[1] Campbell's appointment was to run from August 20, 2012, to June 30, 2013. (Def. Ex. A at 40). Her appointment was subject to the collective bargaining agreement between the Board of Higher Education and the Massachusetts Community College Council. The CBA provided, among other things, that for the first six months of her employment, Campbell would be a “probationary employee” who could be terminated without cause. (Id. at 58).

         Bristol Community College is a public community college that serves more than 9, 000 students. (Def. SOF ¶ 1). The college has campuses in Fall River, New Bedford, Attleboro, and Taunton, Massachusetts. (Id.).

         Campbell has a bachelor's degree in social work, a master's degree in education, and a doctorate in theology. (Id. ¶ 18). She was hired as part of the Massachusetts Community College Workforce Development Transformation Agenda (“MACCWFDTA”), an initiative supported by a $20 million federal grant given to community colleges in Massachusetts. The initiative was intended to help provide certificate or degree programs for unemployed or underemployed students. (Id. ¶¶ 9-10). Her job included providing various academic services to students, supporting outreach to unemployed and under-employed workers, and tracking and reporting student participation and progress. (Id. ¶ 16).

         On August 28, 2012, Anthony Ucci, the college's Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, asked Campbell if she was “part of the ‘Mack Daddy' grant.” (Id. ¶ 102). According to Campbell, she asked Ucci if he knew what “Mack Daddy” meant; when he said he did not, she told him that she found the term offensive because she thought it referred to a black pimp. (Id. ¶ 103-04). Ucci apologized to Campbell and told her that he did not know the term carried that meaning. (Id. ¶ 105).

         Campbell has submitted an exhibit that provides definitions of the term “Mack Daddy” from a variety of sources. According to the exhibit, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as a slang term meaning “a conspicuously successful pimp”; “a slick womanizer”; and “one that is the best.” (Pl. Ex. 7 at 2). The exhibit also provides quotes and URL links to various other online dictionaries (including slang and urban dictionaries) and at least one blog. (Id. at 2-8). The sources generally agree that the term refers principally to a successful pimp or womanizer. (Id.).

         On August 30, 2012, Campbell attended the college's annual professional day. (Id. ¶ 107). During a presentation, the college's President, John Sbrega, used the term “Mack Daddy” to refer to the grant program. (Id. 108).[2]

         As Campbell was leaving, Dean Richard Driscoll asked Campbell if she was “part of the ‘Mack Daddy' grant.” (Id. ¶ 109). Campbell told Driscoll that the term was a racial slur and Driscoll responded that he did not know that. (Id. 109-110).

         Within a week of the professional day, Campbell contends that she spoke with Gloria Saddler, a BCC administrator, and told her that she had been upset by Sbrega's use of the term. (Campbell Dep. at 67-68).

         On September 5, 2012, Campbell attended her first staff meeting with her supervisor, Kristen McKenna, and two other co-workers, Dolores Gatley and Kayla Medeiros. (Id. at 71).[3]At the meeting, according to Campbell, she asked McKenna why the MACCWFDTA grant had been referred to as “Mack Daddy.” (Def. SOF ¶ 112). McKenna told the group that she would bring concerns about the term to Jennifer Freeman, the overall director of the program. (Id. ¶ 114).

         At some point in early September, McKenna raised concerns about the term at a statewide meeting of the program's directors. (Id. ¶ 115). McKenna decided to voice the issue because of Campbell's concerns, and because each of the colleges had been referring to the program by a different name. (Id. ¶ 117). Although she did not believe the term had a racial connotation, McKenna herself thought it could be used to refer to a pimp, and therefore was inappropriate. (Id. ¶ 118). The directors from each of the 15 community colleges involved in the grant program agreed to no longer refer to it by that term, and resolved instead to calling it the “Transformation Agenda.” (Id. ¶ 116).[4]

         On September 7, 2012, Amilcar Ferreira, a vocational counselor at the Fall River Career Center (where Campbell was at times assigned to work) spoke about the “Mack Daddy grant.” (Id. ¶ 120). Ferreira was not, however, an employee of the college. (Id.). Campbell told Ferreira that the term was “racial” and was “very offensive” to black people. (Id. ¶ 121).

         On September 10, 2012, Campbell told Tafa Awolaju, the college's Vice President of Human Resources, about the use of the term. (Id. ¶¶ 122, 126).

         On September 19, 2012, Campbell was at a student enrollment meeting with approximately ten people when she again heard the term “Mack Daddy.” (Id. ¶ 123). She explained to everyone what the term meant to her, and stated her view that the term was a racial slur because she believed it was a reference to President Obama. (Id. ¶ 124).

         Later in September, McKenna “started to feel that [Campbell] was not fulfilling [her] job duties.” (McKenna Dep. at 65). McKenna “started to feel that [she] was a difficult person to work with” because, in her view, she was “disruptive in staff meetings” and would argue with her colleagues. (Id. at 66). In particular, McKenna noted that Campbell would argue with Dolores Gatley; McKenna soon became frustrated that she and Gatley were “acting up.” (Id. at 66-69).

         On October 10, 2012, at a meeting with Medeiros, Gatley, and Campbell, McKenna heard Gatley scream and gasp; when she turned around, she saw Gatley's face had “sandwich on it.” (Id. at 70-72). According to an incident report filed by McKenna on October 21, 2012, Campbell admitted that she and Gatley had had a disagreement, and that she had “forced food” into her face and “said something like ‘eat this.'” (Def. Ex. B at 38). The incident report also stated that Gatley did not want to share an office with Campbell after that event. (Id.).[5]

         Campbell and Gatley also apparently had issues concerning the fact that Gatley would address her by names other than “Dr. Campbell, ” including “Dr. C, ” “Ms. C, ” and “Marlyne.” (Def. SOF ¶ 29). For example, on the evening of October 10, 2012, Campbell sent an e-mail to Gatley with the subject line “Re: Civility” that stated, in part:

I'm not sure what to do in this situation, but: you continue to call me out of what I prefer to be called, IT MUST STOP. On many occasions I've told you how I like to be addressed. Not sure, if this is how you bully a Black women, [sic] but the intimidation is not working. I'm not flinching. Are you condescending towards the students? I hope not.
I'D LIKE TO MAKE A RECOMMENDATION: Maybe our Transformation Agenda grant will provide CULTURAL COMPETENCY AND OR CULTURAL SENSITIVITY AWARENESS TO THE STAFF? Diversity must be prevalent and valued before one may be considered culturally competent . . .

(Def. Ex. B at 35).

         At some point in October, Campbell sent a letter to McKenna. (Id. at 30). The letter included various complaints about her work experience, and apparently referred to the fact that Gatley did not call her by her preferred title. (Id.). The letter also requested a meeting to discuss the issue with McKenna. (Id.).

         McKenna responded by letter, and told Campbell, among other things, that Gatley would start calling her “Dr. Campbell.” (Id. at 31). McKenna apparently addressed the issue with Gatley, and Gatley apologized to Campbell. (Def. SOF ¶ 29).

         On November 5, 2012, McKenna sent Campbell an e-mail stating “I need you to update your calendar on a regular basis.” (Campbell Dep. at 111).

         On November 15, 2012, McKenna sent an e-mail to Campbell and Gatley stating that her supervisors, Aguilar and Menard, “want[ed] to see more progress.” (Def. Ex. A at 48). In addition, the e-mail stated that Campbell and Gatley would need to complete counseling note templates for each student they worked with so that Aguilar and Menard could see how many students they were serving each week. (Id.).

         On November 19, 2012, McKenna sent Campbell a letter after meeting with Joe Vianna, the Director of the Fall River Career Center, and Amilcar Ferreira, a Vocational Counselor at the Center. (Id. at 44).[6] The Career Center was a “partner” of the college, and Campbell was assigned to work at the Center between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. (Id.). Among other things, the letter advised Campbell that the Center had “concerns” about her performance, including “difficulty placing students with [her] for appointments because [it] [was] not certain where [she] [was]” at times. (Id.). To help resolve the issue, she was asked to sign in every day at the Center's front desk. (Id.). In addition, the letter advised Campbell that she would be required to go to the Attleboro and Taunton campuses on December 5, and 6, respectively. The letter also reminded Campbell of the importance of regularly contacting students, attending counseling meetings, and collaborating with co-workers. It also asked her to stop using the title of “pastor” on her business cards. (Id. at 45). McKenna concluded the letter by saying, “[p]lease make every attempt to meet the above requirements over the next 30 days, and at that time we will reevaluate how our mutual and beneficial partnership is progressing.” (Id.).

         On November 23, 2012, McKenna sent Campbell another e-mail that stated, among other things, that she needed to focus on

being on time and accessible to the career center staff, getting the invites for orientation out, calling students, promoting [the college's] programs, documenting your counseling notes, writing down your questions and preparing your weekly report, attending the Friday meeting and above all meeting with clients and students.

(Id. at 49).

         On November 26, 2012, McKenna sent an e-mail concerning Campbell's performance to Aguilar and Lisa Tarantino, the Associate Director of Human Resources for the college. (Def. Ex. B at 34). The e-mail stated that Campbell “exhibits some unstable behavior, ” was “very undisciplined, unorganized, lost, and confused, ” and was not “qualified” for the job. (Id.). McKenna also stated that since her e-mail on November 19, Campbell had been “extremely emotional and unstable.” (Id.). She concluded, “I am very sensitive to employee's rights and I want to be respectful of the process. However . . . I think we may want to consider if this is working out to the benefit of the grant and the college.” (Id.).

         On December 2, 2012, McKenna e-mailed Gatley and Campbell and essentially relayed the message that Menard wanted them to increase their “contact ...

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