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5th Circuit: Judge in Sex Discrimination Case Was Prejudiced From the Start

Man holding wooden gavel in the hand
By Laura Temme, Esq. on February 05, 2021 6:18 AM

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has remanded and reassigned a professor's discrimination and retaliation cases against Sam Houston State University and the University of Houston-Downtown, finding that the district court judge failed to be fair and impartial. The judge, who is not named in the appeal, seemingly made up his mind about plaintiff Audrey Miller from the very beginning of her case.

A Bit of Background

Miller was hired at Sam Houston State University as a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Psychology in 2007. During her time in SHSU's Department of Psychology and Philosophy, she raised concerns about her heavy workload, which she felt was disproportionate compared to her colleagues. She was also forced to step down from dissertation and thesis committees based on disagreements she had with other faculty members. She applied for tenure in late 2012, but reviewers denied her tenure and promotion due to a "lack of collegiality."

Deciding to take her talents elsewhere, Miller applied for a faculty position at the University of Houston-Downtown. In her interview, the search committee asked Miller why she had been denied tenure at SHSU. She responded that she believed it was because she was a woman and raised concerns about women being mistreated in the department. The committee rated Miller as the second-highest candidate for the position after her interview, but after speaking with Miller's supervisors at SHSU, they gave it to someone else.

Plaintiff Had an Uphill Battle

Miller filed suit for sex discrimination, retaliation, and pay discrimination against both schools in 2015. And right from the beginning, it seems the district court judge had a predisposition against Miller's claims.

In the initial case management conference, the judge made comments about Miller and her claims:

"Now, to be candid with you," he said, "there is nothing [Miller] didn't complain about. Anything anybody did for two and a half years, three years, was all for some ulterior motive." He also shared some dubious remarks about his experience with Title VII cases, including, "I have had more tenure decisions than you imagine working here. You wouldn't think professors were litigious, but apparently they are."

Later in the conference, the parties unanimously requested to keep Miller's two cases separate. The judge responded to Miller's attorney, saying, "All right. I will get credit for closing two cases when I crush you. How will that look on your record?"

As the case progressed, things only got worse. The judge denied Miller's motions for discovery, would not allow her to amend her complaints or respond before dismissing the case against UHS, and did not allow her attorney to take depositions. And when Miller was deposed, the judge attended and even admonished Miller about her answers.

Finding the judge's actions "stand at odds with [the] basic notions" of fairness and impartiality, the Fifth Circuit reversed, remanded, and directed the cases to be reassigned to a different district judge.

"To put it simply," the panel wrote, "the court's discovery restrictions suffocated any chance for Miller to fairly present her claims."

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