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Kwon v. University of Vermont and State Agricultural College

United States District Court, D. Vermont

December 7, 2012

Mikyung P. KWON, Plaintiff,

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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William B. Towle, Ward & Babb, South Burlington, VT, for Plaintiff.

Amy M. McLaughlin, Sophie E. Zdatny, Esq., Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew, P.C., Burlington, VT, for Defendant.



Plaintiff, Dr. Mikyung P. Kwon, brings this suit against her former employer, the

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University of Vermont and the State Agricultural College (" UVM" or " the University" ). Kwon alleges that UVM discriminated against her on the basis of age, race, national origin, and place of birth [1] in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act, 21 Vt. Stat. § 495. Kwon further alleges that UVM created a hostile work environment and intentionally caused her emotional distress. UVM now moves for summary judgment on all claims. For the following reasons, the University's motion is denied in part and granted in part.


The following facts are presented in the light most favorable to Kwon as the non-moving party. In 1999, Kwon began working in the University's Continuing Education Department. That same year, the Department hired two other women: Cynthia Belliveau and Carroll Vallett. Belliveau began as Associate Dean of Professional Programs and Vallett began as the Academic Programs Manager. In 2002, Vallett and Belliveau became Interim Co-Directors of the Continuing Education Department. They held that position jointly until 2007, when they became Co-Deans of the Continuing Education Department.

Around 2005, Kwon began to feel that she was being treated differently than other staff within the Continuing Education Department. (Kwon Deposition, ECF No. 37-11, at 31). For instance, she relates that most staff members attended at least one national or regional conference annually; many staff attended without making presentations. In 2005, the Department refused to allow Kwon to attend a national conference without making a presentation. (ECF No. 37-11, at 31; Kwon's Discovery Answers, ECF No. 37-2, at 10).

According to Kwon, the disparate treatment continued and escalated following a landlord-tenant dispute between Kwon and six tenant-students in 2006. The dispute arose when Kwon and her husband attempted to evict the students from apartments they owned. A hearing was held in March 2006. At the hearing, one of the tenant-students referred to Kwon as a " notorious slumlord," and during the hearing three of the students' fathers— all out-of-state attorneys— accused Kwon of using confidential information against their children. (Belliveau Deposition, ECF No. 34-6, at 86). Belliveau's son, who was in a relationship with one of the students Kwon sued, attended the hearing with some of his friends. He and his friends informed Belliveau of both the term and the attorneys' accusations. (Vallett Deposition, ECF 34-5, at 113-114; ECF No. 34-6, at 86). Belliveau repeated the term " notorious slumlord" to Vallett. (Vallett Deposition, ECF No. 37-6, at 113; Belliveau Deposition, ECF No. 37-9, at 101-102).

Belliveau convened a meeting to determine whether Kwon had used confidential information against students. Without giving her prior notice, Belliveau went to Kwon's office on March 13, 2006, interrupted a meeting between Kwon and a student, and requested Kwon to report to the office as soon as the meeting was over. (ECF No. 37-2, ¶ 14). Waiting in Belliveau's office were members of the Management Team and Belliveau's son. ( Id. ). Belliveau raised the concern that Kwon had used confidential student information. She also asked Kwon about the number of

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rental properties and the rate charged. Kwon responded that she had done nothing wrong and that she had only referred to the UVM Directory. ( Id. ). It was later determined that information in the UVM Directory did not constitute confidential information.

Following the March 13, 2006 meeting, one of Kwon's supervisors, Beth Taylor-Nolan, held performance assessments. Belliveau attended Kwon's performance assessment, as she did others. During the meeting, Belliveau again raised the lawsuit and the allegations that Kwon had used confidential information. Kwon again denied using confidential information in relation to the lawsuit. The parties dispute whether Kwon was placed on probation following the performance assessment. (Taylor-Nolan Deposition, ECF No. 34-7, at 68-69, 112-13, 163-65; ECF No. 37-2, at 10, ¶ 22).

Following the 2006 meetings, Kwon felt that Belliveau began to isolate her at work. Kwon stated that Belliveau routinely failed to invite Kwon to both ad-hoc and scheduled meetings. (ECF No. 37-2, at 5, ¶ 4). When Kwon attended meetings, Belliveau ignored her presence and disregarded her responses to questions Belliveau raised. ( Id. at 6, ¶ 8). Kwon also reported that Belliveau ignored her when they passed in the halls, the parking lot, and at a 2007 Christmas party at Belliveau's home. ( Id. at 4-5, ¶¶ 1, 2, 4).

Belliveau's form of treatment of Kwon spread to other managers within the Department. For instance, Kwon compiled and sent data reports on the GAP Program to Belliveau, Vallett and Nolan. ( Id. at 9, ¶¶ 16, 17). When Kwon asked Belliveau whether she had been receiving the reports, Belliveau stated that she had but that the reports contained too much data. ( Id. ). Kwon continued sending the reports until she was terminated. Towards the end of her time at UVM, neither Vallett, Belliveau, nor Nolan responded to the data Kwon prepared. ( Id. ).

According to Kwon, every time there was a reorganization, her role became smaller. (ECF No. 37-11, at 174). The Continuing Education Department was organized into teams, and all of the advisors in the Department were on two or more teams, except for Kwon. (ECF No. 37-2, at 9, ¶ 19). In her role on the Global Team, Kwon was instrumental in bringing a group of Pakistani students to the University. ( Id. ). Nolan assigned Kwon to a position on the Global Team that included a trip to Washington, DC. ( Id. at 6, ¶ 7). Despite Kwon's expressed desire to remain on the Team and before she could go on the trip, Belliveau removed Kwon from the Global Team. ( Id. at 6-7, ¶¶ 7, 9). Kwon was moved to the Online Team, but was not invited to meetings. ( Id. at 9, ¶ 20). When she attempted to join the Environmental Team, she was rebuffed by the managers in the Department. ( Id. at 9, ¶ 19).

Around August 2008, UVM experienced financial difficulties. In response to a budget shortfall, the University requested the Continuing Education Department to reduce its annual budget by $500,000.00. (ECF No. 34-6, at 45-46). Because Belliveau was on administrative leave during the 2008-2009 academic year, Vallett took the lead in developing a plan to cut the Department's budget. (ECF No. 34-5, at 84). However, Belliveau was involved in drafting the plan. While Belliveau did not create a list of names or positions to be eliminated, she and Vallett discussed the planned cuts in a few face-to-face meetings and several telephone calls. (ECF No. 34-6, at 70-71, 74). They discussed Kwon's position at some point during their conversations, and Belliveau described the personnel cuts as a joint decision. ( Id. ).

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The result of Vallett's and Belliveau's conversation was the January 2009 Reorganization Plan. Among other cuts, the Plan proposed shrinking Continuing Education's budget by reducing marketing expenses; cutting teams, including the Online/Distance Learning Team; and eliminating or reducing five staff positions. (ECF No. 34-5, at 64). In the end, Kwon and another individual were fired. (ECF No. 34-5 at 70-71). In February 2009, Vallett informed Kwon that her position would be terminated in June 2009.

Vallett stated that Kwon's position was eliminated because her role within the Department would shrink after the Reorganization plan. According to Vallett, Kwon's work was split evenly between advising GAP students and the Online/Distance Learning Team. Vallett claimed that Kwon was eliminated because the Online/Distance Learning Team was to be disbanded and the need for GAP services was expected to decline. (ECF No. 34-5, at 71, 86-87).

Following Kwon's departure, her work was redistributed to younger staff in the Continuing Education Department. (Nunziata Deposition, ECF No. 37-7, at 31; Worthley Deposition, ECF No. 37-8, at 38). The technical support Kwon provided students taking online courses was outsourced to a third-party vendor. (ECF No. 34-7, at 31, 34). According to UVM, no new staff was hired to make up for the loss of content development, advisory services, or technical support that Kwon provided. ( Id. ).

Kwon disputes the University's justification. She points out that the majority of her work was with GAP students, rather than an even split between GAP advising and work with the Online/Development Team. (ECF No. 37-11, at 17). Further, Kwon alleges that the need for GAP services in 2009 was high and that the demand for advising GAP students remained high. (ECF No. 37-7, at 38). She notes that the individuals that took primary responsibility for her GAP work were extremely overworked. (ECF No. 37-8, at 19-20). Kwon alleges that Belliveau preferred ...

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