College Professor Cannot Sustain Claim of Race Discrimination in Failure to Promote Without Specific Evidence of Animus Against Him

Deepak Sawhney is of South Asian descent and was hired as a professor at Saint Mary's College of California ("College") in 2002. The Chair of the program he was hired into, Marsha Newman, is a white woman who had advocated for the hiring of a white female candidate. Sawhney sought tenure after about three years in his program. Newman wrote a letter to the committee expressing her concerns about Sawhney's lack of communication and apparent disdain for her. The Dean, Stephen Woolpert, supported Sawhney's application and he was promoted to associate professor and granted tenure in 2005.

In August 2005, Sawhney was removed from his position as program coordinator, due in part to Newman's concerns about his behavior. Later that year, Woolpert met with Sawhney and told him that his behavior toward Newman was unacceptable and analogous to "that of an alcoholic." Sawhney claims he told Woolpert he felt like an "invisible man" on campus and alleges that Woolpert told him to stop complaining. Sawhney demanded an apology and accused Woolpert of harboring Newman, whom he called a secret racist.

Around 2006 the College hired an investigator to look into Sawhney's claims that he was discriminated against. The investigator found that Newman's recommendation against Sawhney was motivated by legitimate reasons, but also that Newman's belief that Sawhney has difficulty working with women was not based on any objective evidence. Her recommendation, since it was partially based on this conclusion, likely violated the College's Non-Discrimination Policy. However, that was insufficient evidence that Woolpert violated the policy. Newman left the College in 2005.

In 2009, Woolpert appointed Sawhney as Program Director. As Director, he supervised the Coordinator, Monica Fitzgerald. Sawhney and Fitzgerald had differences and in 2011 he wanted to transfer her to another department. Sawhney claimed Woolpert was not supporting him as Director by urging him to work out his issues with Fitzgerald.

In 2011 Sawhney sought promotion to full professor. The College bases such decisions on several factors, including possession of a doctorate degree, teaching effectiveness, service to the community, scholarly achievement, including publication, and contribution and commitment to the College. The governing board recommended Sawhney even though he had not published since 2004. Woolpert was concerned by this scholarship record. Ultimately, the rank and tenure committee urged against Sawhney's promotion, citing his scholarship, lack of recent peer teaching reviews, and complaints about his inability to work effectively with colleagues.

At the same time, Sawhney emailed the College provost, complaining that Woolpert had created double standards based on race, gender, and religion. These complaints centered on Woolpert's handling of Sawhney's conflict with Fitzgerald, and Woolpert's role in the promotion review. By April 2012, many at the College began to talk to Woolpert about re-assigning either Fitzgerald or Sawhney out of the program. By July of the following year, Sawhney was informed he would be moving to the philosophy department. Sawhney filed a complaint with the DFEH and then filed an action in court, alleging discrimination based on race, national origin, and gender. The College won on summary judgment and Sawhney appealed.

Sawhney said the College, particularly Woolpert, discriminated against him by denying his promotion and transferring him to the philosophy department. The court noted that the record contained evidence that Sawhney was not qualified for promotion because he had not published scholarly work since 2004 and did not work well with others. It was undisputed in the record that Woolpert has only recommended faculty for promotion to full professor where their records reflected peer-reviewed scholarship.

Under the burden-shifting analysis used by the court, Sawhney needed to produce evidence that raises a rational inference of discrimination. He claimed Woolpert consistently sided with white women against him, specifically Newman and Fitzgerald. However, the court noted that it was Woolpert who recommended Sawhney for his initial promotion and tenure and who appointed Sawhney as director of the program. This evidence countered any claims that Woolpert was discriminating against Sawhney when he occasionally sided with Newman or Fitzgerald. Sawhney was not able to produce any credible evidence that Woolpert was biased against him due to his race or national origin. Stray comments that Woolpert made that it could be difficult to communicate with Sawhney because of his culture were not enough to demonstrate actual bias.

Sawhney also attempted to produce evidence of other College employees and students of color to prove that the College and Woolpert harbored discriminatory intent. This evidence, however, of perceived slights by other professors, was not enough to demonstrate bias against Sawhney. Finally, Sawhney tried to introduce evidence from a Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) report from 2007 stating that there were ongoing issues and concerns regarding diversity at the College. Nothing in the report directly links to Woolpert.

With respect to the transfer of Sawhney to the philosophy department, the court also found that his arguments failed. The evidence showed reassigning Fitzgerald was not possible, due to her academic background. Sawhney, however, had a Ph.D., masters, and bachelor's degree in philosophy and had taught in other philosophy departments. The evidence also showed the conflict between Sawhney and Fitzgerald was negatively affecting the entire program and one of them needed to be moved.

Sawhney's retaliation claim was based on the initial 2005 conversation in which Woolpert allegedly told Sawhney to stop complaining about discrimination, as well as the 2013 reassignment to the philosophy department shortly after Sawhney filed a DFEH complaint. The court, however, noted that there was no nexus between Sawhney's complaints of discrimination and these actions. In fact, during those years, Woolpert promoted Sawhney to program director. The trial court's judgment for the College was affirmed.

Note:

This case demonstrates how difficult it can be to handle disputes between two employees without appearing to favor one over the other. By all accounts, Sawhney had difficulties working well with others, but the fact that the two most conflict-filled relationships were with white women led him to accuse the College of discrimination. When handling employee conflicts, it is important to make sure both sides are being given equal treatment and respect. Good documentation of how problems were resolved and why can be helpful, as here Sawhney's academic background was the clear reason why he was switched out of the department instead of Fitzgerald.

Sawhney v. Saint Mary's Coll. of Cal., 2016 WL 661813.