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College prevails on professor’s retaliation claims

Where a college professor argued she was terminated for unlawful reasons, but the record showed the decision was because she was not a good fit for the college and because of reports of threatening and unprofessional behavior, the college prevailed on the retaliation claims.


In 2017, Summer Lashley signed a one-year contract to teach criminal justice courses at Spartanburg Methodist College, or SMC. Less than a year later, SMC decided not to renew Lashley’s contract and terminated her shortly thereafter.

Lashley brought a mix of state and federal law claims against SMC, essentially arguing that her contract non-renewal and termination were unlawful. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of SMC on all federal claims and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims.


Under both the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, and Title IX, the crux of a successful retaliation claim is that the plaintiff engaged in activity protected by law, and then, because of this, the defendant took an adverse employment action against him. Even assuming that Lashley satisfied the first step of the burden-shifting framework, her retaliation claims still fall short.

The record contains ample evidence of legitimate reasons not to renew Lashley’s contract and to terminate her employment. SMC offered evidence showing the reason behind Lashley’s contract non-renewal was that she was not a good fit for SMC. Additionally, SMC put forth evidence that the decision to terminate Lashley was based on reports of threatening and unprofessional behavior.

The burden then shifts back to Lashley to show that SMC’s proffered reasons were a pretext for unlawful retaliation. Lashley’s claims fall short not only because she fails to provide evidence of retaliatory motive, but because she does not offer evidence beyond mere conjecture to undercut SMC’s justifications.


Lashley claims that SMC discriminated against her by failing to accommodate her disability. To prevail on a failure-to-accommodate claim, “a plaintiff must show (i) she was disabled, (ii) the employer had notice of her disability, (iii) she could perform the essential functions of her position with a reasonable accommodation, and (iv) the employer refused to make such accommodation.”

The district court found that Lashley’s gastrointestinal issues could arguably qualify as a disability as defined by the ADA. Lashley insists that she also suffered from PTSD and Lupus. The record is devoid of evidence, however, that PTSD and Lupus “substantially limit[ed] one or more” of Lashley’s “major life activities.” Though she claims she informed Dean Mark Gibbs of these ailments in a meeting, no evidence indicates that she informed Gibbs or anyone else at SMC how these medical issues were significantly impairing her life activities. Lashley’s claims of additional disabilities beyond gastrointestinal issues therefore do not survive the first step of the analysis.

Regardless of the district court’s conclusion on the first prong of Lashley’s failure- to-accommodate claim, her argument falters on the subsequent prongs. Any failure here to engage in such an interactive process was not caused by SMC. Lashley cannot show that SMC refused to make an accommodation because she cannot show that she ever properly requested one. Her failure-to-accommodate claim fails for this reason.

Lashley’s last claim is that Gibbs violated that ADA when he allegedly told Lashley — in an “angry” and “threatening” tone — “tell me about your health issues.” Gibbs denies ever demanding that Lashley tell him about her medical issues. Even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Lashley, her bare testimony cannot form a successful claim for unlawful health inquiry.

To begin with, “[w]hether a medical inquiry is job-related and consistent with business necessity is an objective inquiry.” Further Gibbs acted reasonably in meeting with Lashley to discuss her health issues. When a teacher tells others at the school that she is having medical problems, causing her to cancel classes, it is only reasonable that one of her superiors inquired about them.

Moreover, to determine whether Lashley’s claimed issues threatened her ability to perform the essential functions of the job, Gibbs needed to know how he could accommodate her so that she could continue working. Last, Lashley fails to show that this inquiry was “broader or more intrusive than necessary.”


Lashley v. Spartanburg Methodist College, Case No. 22-1447, April 18, 2023. 4th Cir. (Wilkinson), from DSC at Spartanburg (Dawson). David Eliot Rothstein for Appellant. Todd Russell Flippin for Appellees. VLW 023-2-111. 23 pp.

VLW 023-2-111