NEW ORLEANS — The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has
affirmed the dismissal of a Southern University math professor's
Title VII retaliation claim against her employer and supervisor.
However, the appeals court also remanded the case back to federal
court in New Orleans to determine whether the summary-judgment
dismissal of plaintiff Panagiota Heath's claim meets a standard for
showing that alleged harassment occurring over a broader period was
on account of her sex and was severe and pervasive.
Heath sued the university, as well as the Agricultural and
Mechanical College and supervisor Mostafa Elaasar, in the present
action in federal court in 2013, claiming that a campaign of
harassment began in 2003 and continued through the filing of her
lawsuit. She sought to hold the school liable for alleged harassment
under Title VII and Elaasar individually responsible under section
According to case background, Elaasar became chairman of the
College of Natural Sciences in 2003 when he allegedly began to
interfere with Heath’s classes.
Among other things, he allegedly re-wrote her exams and coerced a
student to make a complaint against her. Further, Elaasar allegedly
turned down Heath’s request for a sabbatical in 2008 and saying to
her that he did not believe she could write a book.
In 2009, the court document
said, Elaasar told Heath to “stop misbehaving.” Another professor
said that Elaasar said that Heath was kept from meetings because she
“talk[ed] too much for a woman.”
She originally sued in state court in 2009 claiming sex
discrimination, but that case was dismissed after she ceased her
pursuit of it.
The court record stated that sometime after she sued, another
female faculty member emailed her indicting that the math department
had a new culture of mostly males who were “known to be dominating
It stated that, “[i]f you are a strong liberal woman” in
sciences and mathematics, “then your job is going to be tough,”
the record stated.
In the March 8 decision by the 5th Circuit, the appeals
panel held that although Heath’s allegations covered a substantial
period of time, the trial court believed it could only consider the
conduct occurring within 300 days of Heath’s filing of a complaint
with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the Title VII
claims and inside one year of filing the lawsuit for the section 1983
The panel found that while Heath's complaint could be interpreted
to allege a claim of hostile work environment based on retaliation,
the magistrate judge who had presided over the case at the Eastern
District of Louisiana and who granted summary judgment, treated the
retaliation claim as one based on discrete acts.
"Heath does not challenge that characterization on appeal, so
we must treat it the same way," Judge Gregg Costa wrote. "Such
a retaliation claim based on discrete acts cannot rely on a
continuing violation theory. So the earliest discrete acts of
retaliation on which Heath can rely must have occurred within the 300
days before she complained to the EEOC."
The panel further found that Heath did not show the “causal
connection between her protected activity and any adverse employment
action that is necessary to make out a prima facie case of
"Looking only at the conduct occurring during that narrow
time frame, the magistrate judge granted summary judgment in favor of
the defendants," the decision stated.
Judges Eugene Davis and Edith Clement also participated in the
The judges found that the principal question in Heath's appeal was
whether the continuing violation doctrine required consideration of a
lengthier period of time in evaluating the merit of Heath’s claims.