Retaliation, But Not Religious Discrimination, Claims Continue Against American University in Cairo

In Shafer v. The American University in Cairo, plaintiff – a tenure-track Assistant Professor – alleged that she was subjected to a hostile work environment, demoted, and discriminated against relative to tenure as a result of her identity as a white American Muslim woman, and then retaliated against for complaining about discrimination. 

The court granted summary judgment to defendants on plaintiff’s religious discrimination and hostile work environment claims, but held that plaintiff raised a genuine question on her retaliation claims.

As to her retaliation claims, the court held:

[A] reasonable jury could find that [plaintiff’s dean’s] decision (even though apparently based on advice of counsel) to record the PVA faculty meeting constitutes a “materially adverse action” under White. By attempting to record the meeting and doing so expressly because Shafer filed an EEOC complaint, [plaintiff’s dean] sent a clear signal to Shafer and to the other faculty members present that complaints about discrimination will be met with hostility and will turn the complaining faculty member into a pariah who cannot be trusted to faithfully report what happened even in a pedestrian faculty meeting. That sort of hostile reaction to an EEOC complaint is exactly the sort of reaction that could dissuade an employee in the future from attempting to vindicate his or her rights not to be discriminated against.

Although many professors might celebrate being barred from committee work, in the context of an assistant professor applying for tenure at a school that weighs 33 percent of the tenure decision on service to the school, preventing Shafer from participating in faculty committees could also dissuade others from engaging in protected activity. In cases where a professor’s participation in such committees would not “adversely affect her job by altering the conditions or her longterm career prospects,” it is possible that exclusion would not constitute a materially adverse action. But here, Shafer’s “service duties to the department and to the university . . . were considered one-third of the tenure portfolio.” Tr. 208. Moreover, the committees from which Shafer was excluded included one that was entrusted with “a complete revision of the curriculum.” Preventing a professor from contributing to the shape of her department’s curriculum, particularly when participating in such a weighty matter might have contributed to the strength of her tenure application, is sufficiently punitive that it could dissuade a reasonable person in her shoes from engaging in protected activity.

This case illustrates that while the facts may not support a claim of status-based discrimination, they may support a claim of retaliation for opposing discriminatory practices.

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