Professor Can Pursue Title VII Discrimination Case Based On Denial To Teach Summer Classes

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Dec 22, 2023

N. Sugumaran Narayanan began teaching at Midwestern State University (MSU) in 2017 as an assistant professor. In 2016, Narayanan sued MSU for denial of a promotion based on retaliation and race, color, and national origin. This suit was settled out of court.

In 2017, Narayanan began experiencing stress-related health issues including anxiety and hypertension.  Narayanan requested and was granted leave to tend to these health-related issues.  Once he recovered, Narayanan requested to teach summer classes for the summer 2018 session, but he was denied the opportunity.

In September 2018, Narayanan requested a two-year unpaid leave of absence to begin in Spring 2019.  MSU denied the request due to the hardship it would impose on the Political Science Department, which was short-staffed at the time.  Narayanan took extended leave despite the denial.

In November 2018, Narayanan requested expedited advanced funding for travel to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to present a paper at a conference in December 2018.  During this trip, Narayanan was diagnosed with cervical spondylotic myelopathy.  In January 2019, just before the start of the spring semester, Narayanan submitted a two-page disability form from his doctor in Malaysia saying that he could not fly and gave a time frame of at least six months before Narayanan could resume his job duties due to the new diagnosis.

MSU granted the leave and Narayanan subsequently exhausted all paid and unpaid leave.

In January 2019, Narayanan filed another complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) based on retaliation for filing his 2016 suit and continued discrimination based on race, color, and national origin.

In August 2019, Narayanan emailed MSU’s disability office requesting additional leave related to his diagnosis, which rendered him unable to fly to MSU from Malaysia for at least another 6-12 months.  MSU responded with an accommodation plan, which offered Narayanan a chair in the classroom, ergonomic office furniture, and limits on extended travel.  Narayanan responded that the accommodations were not sufficient.

Simultaneously, MSU repeatedly asked Narayanan to sign his contract for the following school year, and Narayanan stated he would sign once the accommodation plan was finalized.  MSU viewed Narayanan’s failure to return his contract and failure to report to campus to teach classes as breaches of duties justifying termination.

MSU denied Narayanan’s requests for two additional semesters of leave, citing undue hardship and offering the same accommodations again.  Narayanan did not offer any accommodation alternatives and did not report to teach his fall classes.

MSU informed Narayanan that it was recommending his tenure be revoked for failure to disclose outside employment and neglect of professional duties for failing to meet assigned classes for the 2019 Fall Semester.  Following a hearing, Narayanan was terminated.

Narayanan filed various charges for retaliation, discrimination, and failure to accommodate under both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII.

The trial court granted MSU’s motion for summary judgment and Narayanan appealed.

The Court of Appeals first considered Narayanan’s ADA claims.  The Court of Appeals found that MSU offered accommodations of a chair, ergonomic office furniture, and limits on extended travel.  While Narayanan told MSU the accommodations were insufficient and requested additional leave, he did not respond to the second offer of the same accommodations.  Narayanan also did not show that the offered accommodations were insufficient, and he did not offer any reasonable alternatives.  MSU argued that the indefinite leave request was an undue hardship, and the Court agreed.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s findings on the failure to accommodate claims.

The Court of Appeals then considered Narayanan’s Title VII discrimination and retaliation claims.  The trial court held that Narayanan did not show he suffered an adverse employment action because the failure to grant his desired summer teaching assignments did not rise to the level of an “ultimate employment decision.”  The Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court.  Earlier this year, the Court of Appeals made clear that Title VII required a broader reading than the “ultimate employment decision” line of cases.  The trial court also did not consider Narayanan’s lost income from the denial to teach summer classes.  The Court of Appeals remanded the Title VII claim back to the trial court.

Narayanan v. Midwestern State Univ. (5th Cir. 2023) 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 26997.

Note: This case took place in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which California is part of, has explicitly held that Title VII claims can be brought even if the alleged discrimination does not involve an ultimate employment decision. (Ray v. Henderson (9th Cir. 2000) 217 F.3d 1234.)  Therefore, decisions such as denying teaching summer classes can be grounds for a discrimination claim.

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