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Skelton v. Arizona State University

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 6, 2019

Kara Skelton, Plaintiff,
Arizona State University, et al., Defendants.


          G. Murray Snow, Chief United States District Judge

         For the following reasons Defendants Arizona State University and the Arizona Board of Regent's (“ABOR's”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 39) is granted.


         In April 2014, Plaintiff Kara Skelton was admitted to the University's Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Wellness (“PANW”) program, and was awarded full-tuition remission as well as stipends for a quarter-time Research Associate position and a quarter-time Teaching Associate position. Dr. Bruening was Ms. Skelton's mentor for the program.

         In January 2015, Ms. Skelton informed Dr. Bruening that she was pregnant with her second child. Ms. Skelton asserts that Dr. Bruening was “shocked and taken aback” and explained that “she would have to rethink [her] RA position and study coordinator position” for the upcoming fall semester, and made a reference to how she would have to “problem solve” around her pregnancy. (Doc. 45-1 at 23). Later that month, Dr. Bruening expressed disappointment with how Ms. Skelton conducted herself at a conference and noted that Ms. Skelton was having issues with her productivity. Ms. Skelton responded that she felt like she needed to apologize for her pregnancy, but Dr. Bruening reassured her she did not need to apologize. At the time, Ms. Skelton thanked Dr. Bruening for her “willingness to support me at what is a difficult time in the program and my personal life.” (Doc. 40, Ex. L).

         On February 6, Ms. Skelton filed a complaint with the Office of Equity and Inclusion (“OEI”) alleging that Dr. Bruening was treating her differently after learning she was pregnant. (Doc. 40, Ex. A, 15).

         Later in February, Ms. Skelton told Dr. Bruening that she was considering withdrawing from one of her classes. Dr. Bruening expressed concern about this, because she was afraid that dropping the course would impact Ms. Skelton's ability to pass her progressive exams, which were required for her to continue in the PANW program. Dr. Bruening suggested that Ms. Skelton could take a three week break from her Research Associate position, to help her get caught up on her school work. Around the same time, Skelton emailed the director of the PANW program, Dr. Swan, and expressed that she was “having some personal issues (my son is very sick and has been for a while now)” and was debating whether she should drop one of her courses. After further discussion, Dr. Swan allowed her to drop the course.

         On February 19, Dr. Bruening and Dr. Vaughn met with Skelton to address her concerns from the OEI complaint. Dr. Bruening apologized for her remarks about “problem solving” around Ms. Skelton's pregnancy, reassured her that she did not take away any opportunities or benefits from her because of her pregnancy, and discussed the critical tasks they would reassign during her anticipated maternity leave. During the meeting, Dr. Bruening again reminded Ms. Skelton that she was behind on some of her course work. Following this meeting, Ms. Skelton did not file any additional reports to OEI.

         In March, Dr. Bruening emailed Ms. Skelton and another graduate student to remind them that she expected them to complete their work in the lab during spring break. Ms. Skelton responded that she would be unable to come in to the lab, because she had not arranged for childcare. Dr. Bruening said that this was unacceptable, because the work could not be completed from home, but agreed to schedule a meeting with Ms. Skelton to discuss potential arrangements. Ms. Skelton asked Dr. Swan to attend the meeting, and she did. After the meeting, Dr. Bruening agreed that Ms. Skelton could work from home during spring break.

         In April, Ms. Skelton began to look for a new mentor that would allow her to continue in the program without working under Dr. Bruening. She met with another professor to discuss that possibility. On April 9, Dr. Bruening and Ms. Skelton exchanged emails where Ms. Skelton confirmed that she had “chosen to work with a different mentor” and that Dr. Bruening “should no longer pay my stipend and tuition remission starting summer 2015.” (Doc. 40 Ex. V).

         Later that month, Dr. Swan emailed the members of the PAWN staff noting that Ms. Skelton was likely going to fail a class that would prevent her from taking her progressive exams. Then, in early May, Ms. Skelton withdrew from her remaining classes, which meant she could no longer sit for her progressive exams. Ms. Skelton then transferred to a different doctoral program at the University of Alabama Birmingham, and began her studies there in the fall of 2015.

         Ms. Skelton filed this lawsuit in April 2017, alleging sex discrimination under Title IX and seeking compensatory and punitive damages. The Arizona Board of Regents moves for summary judgment, arguing that it was not deliberately indifferent to Ms. Skelton's complaints of pregnancy discrimination, and that many of her claims are barred by the statue of limitations.


         I. ...

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