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Richardson v. Northwest Christian University

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

March 16, 2017



          Ann Aiken United States District Judge

         This is the unusual employment discrimination case in which the facts are largely undisputed. Plaintiff Coty Richardson was employed by defendant Northwest Christian University as a professor of exercise science. When she became pregnant, plaintiff informed defendant in order to coordinate her maternity leave. After defendant confirmed plaintiff was unmarried, it offered her three choices: stop living with the father of her child, marry the father of her child, or lose her job. Plaintiff refused the first two options, and defendant fired her. Plaintiff then filed this action, alleging discrimination on the basis of sex, pregnancy, and marital status and asserting related state-law claims for breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress. After discovery, both parties filed motions for summary judgment.

         The parties make numerous arguments, but at its heart, this lawsuit is about what happens when an employment policy based on an employer's sincerely held religious belief conflicts with an employee's rights under federal and state discrimination laws. For the reasons set forth below, I enter summary judgment in plaintiffs favor on her claim for marital status discrimination, enter summary judgment in defendant's favor on plaintiffs claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and dismiss plaintiffs request for punitive damages. The parties' motions for summary judgment are otherwise denied.


         Defendant is a nonprofit, Christian university located in Eugene, Oregon. De Young Decl. Ex. 1 (doc. 37-1). Part of its mission is to evangelize. Womack Dep. 32:8-14 (doc. 38-3). In keeping with its tradition and values, defendant expects its faculty to adhere to "Biblical Christianity, " which it defines as living according to "what is instructed [and] taught in the Bible." Womack Dep. 23:1-2. Defendant hires only Christian faculty and expressly requires those faculty to integrate their Christian faith into their jobs, including their instruction to students. Richardson Dep. 107:16-19 (doc. 51-1).

         Defendant believes that "[t]he Christian quest for truth relates to all aspects of the liberal arts and sciences, including the humanities, social sciences, and physical and life sciences." Vickers Decl. Ex. I at 10 Oct. 25, 2016 (doc. 38-9). In the words of Dennis Lindsay, Vice President for Academic Affairs, defendant believes it is vital that all subjects be taught by "Christians who are engaged in these disciplines and who bring that to the classroom." Lindsay Dep. 45:3-6 (doc. 38-2). The integration of faith and employment duties "is not something mechanical... it's a matter of attitude, a perspective that a... professor who is Christian brings to that subject matter and models." Lindsay Dep. 46:2-9. Employees must demonstrate a "maturing Christian faith, " which university President Joseph D. Womack further defined as "ongoing exercise in one's faith and growing deeper. Their relationship with the Lord. Deeper in their understanding God's word and the application of such. Active involvement in the community of faith. Service." Womack Dep. 26:14-18.

         In 2011, defendant solicited applications for an instructor of exercise science. The position description stated the successful applicant would "provide a solid model of ethical leadership" and "contribute to the integration of faith and learning by addressing this issue in class and in curriculum." Vickers Decl. Ex. A at 10 Oct. 25, 2016 (doc. 38). The description further required applicants to demonstrate "a maturing Christian Faith and be supportive of NCU's mission to develop competent, ethical leaders for service in the workplace, community, Church, and world." Mat 11.

         Plaintiff began the application process by submitting a letter of interest, in which she indicated she would be "proud to be employed by a faculty that honors Christian principles and values." Id. at 12. At defendant's invitation, plaintiff submitted a personal faith statement as part of her application. Id. at 35; Richardson Dep. 89:14-19 (doc. 38-1). She discussed that faith statement in her interview with Dr. Lindsay. Richardson Dep. 92:21 -25. In a follow-up letter to Dr. Lindsay, plaintiff expressed excitement about working with faculty "who demonstrate a maturing Christian faith, ethical leadership, [and] a strong moral compass[.]" Vickers Decl. Ex. A at 13 Oct. 25, 2016. At the time plaintiff applied for the position with NCU, she had two children. Although it appears plaintiff never affirmatively disclosed to her supervisors or coworkers that she was not married, Dr. Lindsay and others assumed (correctly) she was unmarried because she openly discussed her children yet never mentioned a spouse. Lindsay Dep. 66:14-16 (doc. 38-2).

         In August 2011, plaintiff began work as an instructor of exercise science. Although she was subject to the faith integration requirements described above, her job duties did not include teaching scripture or praying with students. McNeil Dep. 53:11-13 (doc. 38-4). The parties' employment agreement was governed by a contract running for the academic year. Id. at 15. The contract listed certain key duties of employment and stated that

Other duties and responsibilities as well as faculty rights and privileges are described in the Faculty Handbook and Staff and Faculty Personnel Manual. Employment under this contract may be terminated for cause at any time, as specified in the Faculty Handbook, page 27, in which event all salary and other benefits shall cease as of the effective date of termination.

Id. At page 27, the Faculty Handbook states that "[a]dequate cause for termination includes, but is not limited to, professional incompetence, failure to meet performance responsibilities, moral delinquency, or lack of commitment to the mission of the University." Vickers Decl. Ex. H at 11 Oct. 25, 2016. It also set forth procedures for terminating a full-time faculty member:

If a full-time teaching faculty member's employment is being considered for termination, the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty convenes the Faculty Review Panel to review the situation. They then meet with the faculty member. The Vice President for Academic Affairs and the Dean of the Faculty's decision is final. The faculty member is notified in writing regarding the decision taken.


         The Staff and Faculty Personnel Manual contains a broad nondiscrimination provision:

The University's policy is not to discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of age (within statutory limits), race, color, sex, national origin or ancestry, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, or any other protected status to the extent prohibited by applicable non-discrimination laws with respect to hiring, promotion, demotion, transfer, recruitment, termination, salary level or other forms of compensation, or any other term of condition of employment.

Vickers Decl. Ex. I at 11 Oct. 25, 2016. It also contains the following disclaimer:

Northwest Christian University intends this document to be informational and not to be construed as a contract of employment, express or implied, or as a guarantee of the benefits or policies stated herein. NCU may unilaterally add to, modify or withdraw any provision in this manual at any time for any reason. Employees will be notified of any changes in policies or procedures on or before their effective date.

Id. at 4.

         Defendant has an anti-fraternization policy prohibiting sexual or romantic relationships between faculty and students, but otherwise has no written policy addressing employees' sexual conduct. Lindsay Dep. 94:9-15 (doc. 38-7). Nonetheless, defendant takes the position that its policy requiring faculty to live their lives in conformity with Biblical Christianity necessarily includes a prohibition against "[o]ngoing cohabitation and sexual relations outside of marriage" because those practices are "incompatible with the Christian ethic based on our understanding of the Holy Scripture." Vickers Decl. Ex. E at 2 Oct. 25, 2016. At her deposition, plaintiff asserted she did not consider a prohibition on extramarital sex/cohabitation to be a stated part of defendant's core values. Richardson Dep. 206:4 (doc. 51-1). She conceded, however, that she is unaware of any Christian religions that condone premarital sex. Richardson Dep. 107:20-22.

         Plaintiff worked as an instructor for four years. Vickers Decl. Ex. A at 15, 22, 29 & 30 Oct. 25, 2016. During that time, she received uniformly positive performance reviews rating her as "above average" and "doing very well." Id. at 16-21 & 23-28. In 2013, the Faculty Review Panel "enthusiastically recommend[ed plaintiff] for a renewed contract as a well-qualified instructor with a sincere commitment to students and peers." Kalish Decl. Ex. A at 14 Nov. 18, 2016 (doc. 44). In 2015, she was promoted to assistant professor. Id. at 8. Also in 2015, plaintiff signed a new contract for the 2015-2016 academic year. Vickers Decl. Ex. C at 9 Oct. 25, 2016.

         On May 21, 2015, plaintiff emailed Dr. Lindsay and another science professor, Heike McNeil, to inform them that she was pregnant with her third child. Vickers Decl. Ex. A at 31 Oct. 25, 2016. The following day, Dr. Lindsay sent a short email congratulating plaintiff. Id. at 32. Dr. Lindsay then privately discussed with Dr. McNeil his assumption that plaintiff was not married and asked Dr. McNeil to "check in" regarding plaintiffs marital status. Kalish Decl. Ex. D at 5 Oct. 25, 2016 (doc. 34). Dr. McNeil set up a meeting with plaintiff over tea. At the end of the meeting, Dr. McNeil confirmed that plaintiff was not married but was living with the baby's father. She told plaintiff that "could be an issue" and to anticipate an "awkward" conversation with Dr. Lindsay in the future. Richardson Dep. 171:13-172:9, 172:21-23 (doc. 38-1). Dr. McNeil then reported back to Dr. Lindsay that plaintiff was not married. Lindsay Dep. 90:11-16 (doc. 34-7).

         On June 24, 2015, Dr. Lindsay and plaintiff met to discuss the situation. Dr. Lindsay informed plaintiff that defendant could not support her continued cohabitation outside of marriage. Vickers Decl. Ex. B at 8 Oct. 25, 2016. He presented plaintiff with three choices: marry the baby's father before the start of the academic year in August, admit that she had made a "mistake" and stop living with the baby's father, or lose her job. Richardson Dep. 187:5-12 (doc. 51-1). In his deposition, Dr. Lindsay stated that he understood there could be valid reasons plaintiff would not want to marry the baby's father - for example, if the situation involved domestic abuse. Lindsay Dep. 77:9-78:7 (doc. 46-2). Dr. Lindsay did not expect plaintiff to completely dissociate from the baby's father if they did not get married, as he assumed the father would have some role in the child's life. Lindsay Dep. 78:15. However, the cohabitation had to end; it would have been unacceptable for them to continue living together even if plaintiff promised to keep the relationship nonsexual. Lindsay Dep. 81:14.

         Dr. Lindsay followed up by phone on June 29, 2015 and June 30, 2015, leaving a voicemail requesting a call back each time. Vickers Decl. Ex. C Dec. 13, 2016 (doc. 51). Plaintiff responded in a June 30, 2015 email, which stated:

After deliberate and careful thought, I would like to preserve my privacy and decline speaking about my personal situation to my direct supervisors, co-workers, colleagues, or past and present students at this time.... I feel that discussion of my personal life at my place of work involving matters of marriage, the health of my sexuality, my reproduction, and personal choices are not only inappropriate but also uncomfortable regardless of the institution in which I work.

Kalish Decl. Ex. A at 5 Oct. 25, 2016.

         Dr. Lindsay responded the same day with a letter:

Conditions of your employment require compliance with the Faculty Handbook. The Faculty Handbook is clear that NCU is an academic institution with its foundation in the Christian Faith. NCU's goals include that of an institution of integrity, mindful of its heritage and Christian service.
Your pregnancy outside of marriage and cohabitation with the father is incompatible with NCU's mission and goals. NCU expects its faculty to be role models for the students. Your present circumstance does not reflect faith based conduct consistent with NCU goals or expectations.
In order to continue your employment, you must conform your lifestyle to reflect the faith based perspective of NCU. If you choose to continue to cohabitate outside of marriage, your employment with NCU must end.

Vickers Decl. Ex. A at 34 Oct. 25, 2016.

         In a second letter, sent July 6, 2015, Dr. Lindsay expanded:

Since your marital status is generally known and your pregnancy will be obvious to all, it will be apparent to faculty and students you have engaged in a lifestyle that does not reflect faith based ...

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