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Carlson v. University of New England

United States District Court, D. Maine

July 12, 2017

LARA CARLSON, Plaintiff,



         Lara Carlson has filed suit against her employer, the University of New England (UNE), alleging that she was subject to unlawful retaliation, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Maine Human Rights Act, for having reported acts of sexual harassment by a supervisor. ECF No. 1-1. UNE moves for summary judgment on all claims against it. ECF No. 35. For the reasons below, UNE's motion is granted.


         Carlson was hired by UNE as a tenure-track associate professor in the Exercise and Sport Performance (ESP) Department in 2009. She specializes in the field of exercise physiology and has primarily taught exercise science classes, including Exercise Physiology and Environmental Physiology while at UNE. In 2011, Paul Visich became the chair of the ESP Department, and Carlson's direct supervisor. Carlson alleges that Visich began sexually harassing her in the fall of 2011. She reported the alleged harassment to UNE's Human Resources Department in September 2012. In November 2012, Carlson and UNE's HR Director met with Visich and discussed Carlson's concerns about the alleged harassment.

         A. Alleged Retaliation

         Carlson asserts that following the November 2012 meeting, Visich and UNE took a number of retaliatory actions against her. She claims:

• Visich completed a negative annual review of her for the 2012-2013 academic year.
• Visich led a campaign to remove her as head of the College Bowl team, an extracurricular activity that Carlson brought to UNE.
• The curriculum committee within the ESP Department refused to grant exemptions to course prerequisites for students seeking to take one of her classes, though similar exemptions had been provided in the past.
• She was forced to transfer out of the ESP Department.
• Her course assignments changed so that she no longer taught courses in her specialty of exercise physiology.
• Visich had her biography removed from the ESP Department webpage.
• UNE failed to give her credit in a news release about the research of one of her former students, and also failed to invite her to participate in a sports science initiative, despite her expertise in that field.
• She is no longer advising Exercise Science majors, which interferes with her ability to recruit candidates for research opportunities.
• She was given lower merit-based salary increases as a consequence of her complaints.

         I turn to consider each of these allegations in greater depth.

         1. Annual Review

         The annual review that Visich completed for Carlson for the 2012-2013 academic year stated, in part:

[Carlson's] involvement with the department this year has been fairly minimal . . . . I believe part of [the] reason for this is that she is the only faculty member in the department that is not located in the [ESP building.] . . . [T]here have been a couple of occasions we have spoken about professional conduct as it pertains to interactions with students and other faculty members in the department. . . . [She] has done a very acceptable job in the courses she has taught this past year, and is respected by the students. She has also taken the initiative to bring in speakers . . . . [She] has also promoted student research, which is greatly needed within the department. . . . In regards to the department, I believe this is the area for the greatest improvement, where I hope she will become more involved in promoting program activities.

         ECF No. 31-2 at 52-53. Visich asked UNE's HR director to review the evaluation before he submitted it to ensure that it in no way impeded Carlson's ability to obtain tenure. Carlson drafted a rebuttal to the evaluation, which Visich forwarded to the HR department. The committee that reviewed the evaluation and the rebuttal found that Carlson had “adequately stated her case to have the letter revised, ” and determined that her level of teaching, service, and scholarship “far exceed[ed] ‘very acceptable.'” ECF No. 34 at 52-53. Carlson applied for tenure in late 2013. Her application was supported at every level of review, and she was awarded tenure and promoted to Associate Professor in March 2014.

         2. College Bowl Team

         Carlson was a founding faculty member of UNE's student College Bowl team, which participated in extracurricular trivia contests. She led the team from 2009 to 2013. She contends that in October 2013, after some discussion at a department faculty meeting about how the selection process for the team operated, Visich selected another person to run the team. UNE contends that Visich merely promoted the idea that another faculty member should help run the team with Carlson, and that Carlson was welcomed to continue to help run the team, but that she chose to stop participating rather than work with the other faculty member.

         3. Prerequisite Waiver Requests

         In December 2013, a number of students who wished to take Carlson's Environmental Physiology course, but who lacked the prerequisite coursework, applied for waivers of the prerequisites. The waiver applications were reviewed by a curriculum committee, which consisted of department faculty members, and which granted only one of the waiver requests. Carlson asserts that in the past Visich would typically approve such waiver requests, and that this was the first time the requests had been referred to a curriculum committee. Carlson testified that she believed the requests were denied because Visich wanted to encourage students to take one of his own classes instead of her class.

         4. Transfer from ESP Department

         In September 2013, Elizabeth Francis-Connolly became the new dean of the Westbrook College of Health Professionals, the college within UNE in which the ESP Department is located. In January 2014, Carlson met with Francis-Connolly and UNE's HR director to request a surrogate supervisor so that she did not have to work as closely with Visich. Though Francis-Connolly considered the idea, she ultimately decided that it was not feasible for Carlson to be supervised by a faculty member outside the ESP department while remaining in the department, because that arrangement would likely create a conflict and usurp the leadership of the Department. Francis-Connolly instead proposed that Carlson be moved out of the ESP department, in order to accommodate her request to be separated from Visich. Carlson accepted this proposal with the understanding that it was the only option that would allow her to continue teaching her courses while no longer being supervised by Visich. She moved out of the ESP Department in February 2014. Francis-Connolly served as Carlson's supervisor for a period, and Carlson was eventually placed in the Physical Therapy Department.

         5. Teaching Assignments

         For the 2014-2015 academic year, the year following her move out of the ESP Department, Carlson continued to teach Exercise Physiology, though Visich asked that the course be assigned to another faulty member. In the 2015/2016 academic year, Carlson was not offered the Exercise Physiology or Environmental Physiology courses she had been accustomed to teaching, and instead taught an introductory course. Francis-Connolly explained that the change occurred because Carlson was no longer full-time in the ESP Department, and she was trying to create distance between Carlson and Visich. Visich had also complained that he had no control over the course content when Carlson taught the courses because she was no longer communicating with anyone in the ESP Department. Following a sabbatical during the fall of 2016, Carlson was assigned to teach Environmental Physiology again for the spring semester in 2017, though the course was listed through the Biology Department, rather than the ESP Department.

         In June 2014, UNE removed a dedicated laboratory period from the Exercise Physiology course that Carlson was teaching. Carlson asserts that this change made it difficult for her to conduct the lab that was part of her course. UNE contends that the lab was unnecessary because its topics were already being taught as part of existing courses, and removing the lab allowed the university to avoid hiring adjunct faculty to cover the additional laboratory time.

         In May 2015, Carlson and Francis-Connolly discussed cross-listing the Environmental Physiology course with the Biology Department. Carlson claims that Visich then had the Associate Dean remove the cross-listed course from the course catalog. UNE responds that the Associate Dean removed the course because proper procedures were not followed in cross-listing the course. While Visich agreed with the action, he claims he did not request or instruct that the course be removed. The Environmental Physiology course was eventually listed with the Biology Department for the 2016-2017 academic year.

         6. Removal from ...

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