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Burton v. Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

March 17, 2017

Sabina Burton, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued January 19, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 14-cv-274 James D. Peterson, Judge.

          Before Flaum, Manion, and Williams, Circuit Judges.

          Manion, Circuit Judge.

         Sabina Burton, a professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, sued the school's Board of Regents and three individual defendants. She claims that her superiors took several retaliatory actions against her over the course of about two years. She seeks relief under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The district court granted summary judgment to the Board and the individual defendants. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

         I. Background

         In 2009, Dr. Burton was hired as a tenure-track professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Wisonsin-Platteville. In January 2012, she was promoted to associate professor. Later that year, a series of events began to unfold that eventually led to this litigation.

         First, in October 2012, Burton received a complaint from a student in her department who claimed that another professor had sexually harassed her. The student was upset that the professor had handed her a note during class that read "call me tonight!" and included the professor's phone number. The next day, Burton contacted the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts (which encompasses her department), Elizabeth Throop, regarding the alleged harassment. Burton then spoke with her department chair, Thomas Caywood, who broached the subject with the offending professor.

         The professor who wrote the note claimed that it was part of a "breach experiment, " or an intentional provocation designed to display to the class social norms by violating them. The student, however, took it seriously. In any event, Burton told Caywood that she thought all faculty members should be made aware whenever a professor conducts such an experiment, but Caywood didn't think that was necessary. A week later, Caywood circulated a memo to the department that altered the procedure for reporting student complaints about faculty members: professors were now to bring students' complaints directly to Caywood, rather than going outside of the department. The next month, Caywood said at a department meeting that the change was necessary because someone had overreacted by bringing a student complaint outside the department. Overall, Caywood became less collegial towards Burton, and she viewed the change in departmental policy as a direct repudiation of her conduct.

         Around the same time, Throop and Caywood began to withdraw their support for a cybersecurity curriculum that Burton had been developing. In April 2012, Burton submitted (and Caywood signed) a grant application to the National Science Foundation in an attempt to receive funding for the creation of a cybersecurity curriculum at the University. That application was rejected, but Burton eventually received a modest offer from AT&T of $7, 000 to fund the cybersecurity program.

         Caywood and Throop hampered this process after Burton had reported the alleged harassment of the student in October 2012. Specifically, in November Caywood failed to respond to Burton's request for a meeting about the grant process. Then on January 24, 2013, both Throop and Caywood objected to the wording in a draft press release prepared by the AT&T representative. In an email chain that included Burton and the AT&T representative, Throop and Caywood expressed their concerns that the press release said too much because Burton had yet to submit formally any course curricula to the appropriate University committees. Caywood also confronted Burton about inaccuracies (which Caywood had never noticed before) on two websites that Burton had created for the proposed cybersecurity program. Nevertheless, Throop and the AT&T representative ironed out the language of the press release and Burton received the grant the next day in a public ceremony attended by the provost of the University.

         In the midst of this, in January 2013 Burton submitted her application for tenure. It was unanimously granted two months later. Although Caywood had initially opposed Burton's application, he eventually voted in her favor. Caywood then stepped down as department chair after the 2012-13 academic year, seemingly in part because of conflict with Burton. He was replaced by Michael Dalecki, but Burton's troubles did not end there.

         On August 13, 2013, Burton filed a charge of discrimination with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development - Equal Rights Division (ERD). In it, Burton alleged that (1) Caywood had discriminated against her because of her sex and retaliated against her for reporting the note incident; (2) both Throop and the University's human resources director (to whom Burton had sent an email complaining of Cay-wood's retaliation) had discriminated against her; (3) Throop had defamed her (in connection with the AT&T press release); and (4) the University had been deliberately indifferent to her grievances. After she filed that charge, Dalecki and others pressured her on multiple occasions to drop her case. Burton was told that she might have been considered for the positions of dean or department chair, but that she could not expect to advance if she continued to engage in litigious behavior.

         On April 14, 2014, Burton filed her initial complaint in this case in the Western District of Wisconsin, alleging both discrimination and retaliation. Then on October 20, 2014, she completed an intake questionnaire with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Four days later, Throop sent Burton a "letter of direction" which identified seven events that Throop considered examples of inappropriate behavior by Burton.[1] Throop's letter included five specific directions for Burton to follow. Burton, however, rejected the directions and accused Throop of mischaracterizing the facts. Afterwards, Throop filed a complaint against Burton with the chancellor of the ...

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