James Davis ("Appellant"), a professor of Spanish, was denied tenure from Western Carolina University ("WCU"). He then sued alleging WCU discriminated against him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., due to his mental illness. After extensive discovery, the district court granted summary judgment to WCU concluding that WCU denied Appellant tenure for reasons unrelated to his alleged disability. We determine that WCU denied Appellant tenure because of his misconduct, not his disability; therefore, we affirm.
The district court provided a thorough recital of the facts below such that we do not need to repeat them in full here.
Before WCU's denial of tenure became final, Appellant filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") asserting that he was denied tenure because of his depression and depression-related mental health impairments. On November 22, 2013, Appellant received a letter from the EEOC granting him the right to sue. On May 5, 2014, Appellant filed this action alleging that WCU denied him tenure because of his mental health related disabilities in violation of the ADA.
After extensive discovery and upon WCU's motion, the district court granted summary judgment to WCU. The court concluded that Appellant failed to present any evidence demonstrating that his discharge occurred as the result of discrimination. Rather, it determined that WCU denied Appellant tenure due to his numerous instances of misconduct.
Appellant timely appealed.
We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. See RLM Commc'n v. Tuschen, 831 F.3d 190, 195 (4th Cir. 2016). "Summary judgment is appropriate only if no material facts are disputed and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Dreamstreet Invs., Inc. v. MidCountry Bank, 842 F.3d 825, 829 (4th Cir. 2016).
To establish a discrimination claim pursuant to the ADA, a party must establish his disability was the "but-for" cause of an adverse employment decision. Gentry v. E. W. Partners Club Mgmt. Co., 816 F.3d 228, 235 (4th Cir. 2016). If an employer acts with a mixed motive — both a discriminatory and non-discriminatory reason — then the employer is not liable. See id. In other words, causation requires disability to be more than a motivating factor: it must be the only motivating factor. See id.
Here, the undisputed evidence amply demonstrates that WCU's decision was motivated primarily by Appellant's numerous instances of gross misconduct and not his disability. Appellant's gross misconduct included, but was not limited to, a poem he wrote depicting the rape of Dean Ford, a story he wrote about killing a faculty member, and threats directed against those involved in the tenure process. Because of the alarming and continuous nature of Appellant's misconduct, multiple faculty members suffered from anxiety, sleep deprivation, and were afraid to come to work.
Indeed, as to Appellant's misconduct, Dean Gibbs Knotts, who recommended against Appellant's 2011 tenure application, specifically identified an incident where campus law enforcement filed a report against Appellant for making derogatory comments to construction workers who had called the police to have Appellant's illegally parked vehicle towed. Additionally, Dean Knotts described the general fear Appellant engendered amongst the faculty as a further reason he opposed Appellant's tenure. For example, one colleague was "scared to come to work" in light of Appellant's comments and sought an arrangement to teach on-line to avoid interacting with Appellant. J.A. 146.
Therefore, based on the entire record, we hold that a reasonable jury would not conclude that discriminatory animus was the but-for cause of WCU's negative tenure determination. See Gentry, 816 F.3d at 235.
Moreover, in accord with our sister circuits, we are hesitant to second guess the "subjective and scholarly judgments" involved in professorial employment matters. Jiminez v. Mary Washington Coll., 57 F.3d 369, 376 (4th Cir. 1995) (quotation marks omitted); see also E.E.O.C. v. Amego, Inc., 110 F.3d 135, 145 (1st Cir. 1997) ("In the context of academic tenure cases, this court has been attentive to the need to balance the right of a plaintiff to be free from discrimination against the undesirable result of having the court sit as a `super-tenure committee.'" (quoting Villanueva v. Wellesley Coll., 930 F.2d 124, 129 (1st Cir. 1991))). Ultimately, in a circumstance such as this where substantial evidence supports the lawful denial of tenure, we will not interfere with that decision.
For the foregoing reasons and for the reasons ably stated in the district court's opinion, we affirm.