United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division
OPINION AND ORDER
Aiken United States District Judge
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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).
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.
Staff and Faculty Personnel Manual contains a broad
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
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
Id. at 4.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
Kalish Decl. Ex. A at 5 Oct. 25, 2016.
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.
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 ...