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Date: 09-15-2023

Case Style:

Erika Lopez Prater v. Trustees of Hamline University of Minnesota

Case Number: 23-CV-505

Judge: Katherine M. Menendez

Court: United States District Court for the District of Minnesota (Hennepin County)

Plaintiff's Attorney: Adam Gillette, DAvid Redden, and Nicholas May

Defendant's Attorney: Kevin Coan and Mark Berhow

Description: Minneapolis, Minnesota civil rights lawyer represented the Plaintiff who sued the Defendant claiming to have been wrongfully not hired.

The dispute arises out of the non-renewal of Ms. Lopez Prater's employment contract to teach at Hamline during the Spring of 2023. Hamline hired Ms. Lopez Prater as an Undergraduate Adjunct Instructor to teach a World Art class for the Fall 2022 semester. [Complaint (“Compl.”), ECF No. 1-3, ¶ 4.] Her employment at Hamline was subject to the policies set forth in Hamline's Faculty Handbook. [Id. at ¶ 64.] Upon her acceptance of Hamline's offer of appointment on August 8, 2022, she became a Service Employees International Union Local 284 (“Union”) Unit Member covered by a Collective Bargaining Agreement for Certain Undergraduate Adjunct Faculty (“CBA”).

Ms. Lopez Prater acknowledged the requirement that she become a Unit Member of the Union in an email to her supervisor and department chair of the Art and Digital Media Department, Allison Baker, in September 2022. [Id. ¶ 4.] Later that month, Ms. Baker asked Ms. Lopez Prater if she was interested in teaching a contemporary art class during the spring semester, and Ms. Lopez Prater indicated that she was. [Compl. ¶ 12.] Hamline listed the class as a course offering for the spring. [Id. ¶ 13.]

Ms. Lopez Prater is not Muslim but knew that some Muslims object to viewing art containing images of the Prophet Muhammad. [Id. ¶ 5.] In October 2022, as part of a unit on Islamic art, Ms. Lopez Prater showed two paintings displaying the Prophet Muhammad during a class conducted remotely over Zoom. [Id. ¶¶ 14, 15.] According to the Complaint, it is undisputed that both paintings were made with great reverence for the Prophet Muhammad, and Ms. Lopez Prater warned students before showing the paintings. [Id., ¶. 19] During class, a Muslim student, Aram Wedatalla, viewed the paintings and was offended by them. [Id. ¶ 20.] Ms. Wedatalla stayed on the video call after the other students left and expressed outrage to Ms. Lopez Prater that images of the Prophet Muhammad were displayed. [Id.] After the conversation ended, Ms. Lopez Prater emailed Ms. Baker to explain what happened in class and alerted Ms. Baker that Ms. Wedatalla might contact her. [Id. ¶ 22.] Ms. Baker responded via email saying, “I'm sorry that happened and it sounded like you did everything right. I believe in academic freedom, so you have my support but thank you for the heads up.” [Id.]

On October 7, 2022, Ms. Baker notified Ms. Lopez Prater that Ms. Wedatalla had complained to Marcela Kostihova, the Dean of Hamline's College of Liberal Arts.

Ms. Baker told Ms. Lopez Prater that sending Ms. Wedatalla an email apologizing for making her feel uncomfortable would be a good idea, but not to backpedal on her right to academic freedom under Hamline's policy. [Id.] Ms. Lopez Prater drafted an email and provided it to Ms. Baker to review. [Id. ¶ 24.] After receiving Ms. Baker's suggested edits, Ms. Lopez Prater sent an email apologizing that the images made Ms. Wedatalla uncomfortable. [Id.] Ms. Wedatalla did not respond to the email, but allegedly shared it others. [Id. ¶ 25.]

Around October 10, Ms. Lopez Prater had two discussions with Dean Kostihova. [Compl. ¶ 26.] During the first conversation, Dean Kostihova told Ms. Lopez Prater that it was not a good idea for her to have shown images of the Prophet Muhammad. [Id.] Dean Kostihova informed Ms. Lopez Prater that there had been a significant outcry within the Muslim Student Association as well as by Muslim faculty and staff and that Muslim staff were threatening to resign. [Id.] Dean Kostihova recommended that Ms. Lopez Prater apologize in class. [Id.] During their second conversation, Ms. Lopez Prater expressed concern about the damage the situation may cause to her career. [Id. at 27.] She also explained that excluding Muslim paintings of the Prophet Muhammad would be discriminatory because it would privilege the religious views of Muslims who object to viewing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad over those of Muslims who do not object. [Id.]

During class on October 11, Ms. Lopez Prater apologized to her students and asked if anyone would like to discuss the situation further. [Id. ¶ 28.] No one responded to her invitation, and she informed them that she was open to having a conversation later if they were uncomfortable discussing the matter during class. [Id.] Despite her apologies, around October 24, Ms. Baker notified Ms. Lopez Prater that the class she had been scheduled to
teach during the spring semester was being canceled and that her contract would not be renewed. [Id. ¶ 29.] Ms. Baker wrote:

We have deeply appreciated the breadth of knowledge you have brought to Hamline this semester but as a department we need to make a spring semester change and will no longer be able to offer the contemporary art history class online as we had previously discussed.

On November 7, 2022, while Ms. Lopez Prater was still employed by Hamline, Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence, David Everett, Ph. D., sent the following email to all Hamline employees and students:

Several weeks ago, Hamline administration was made aware of an incident that occurred in an online class. Certain actions taken in that class were undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic. While the intent behind those actions may not have been to cause harm, it came at the expense of Hamline's Muslim community members. While much work has been done to address the issue in question since it occurred, the act itself was unacceptable. *** I want to make it clear: isolated incidents such as we have seen define neither Hamline nor its ethos. They clearly do not meet community standards or expectations for behavior. We will utilize all means at our disposal, up to and including the conduct process, to ensure the emotional health, security and wellbeing of all members of our community.

On November 18, Hamline's student newspaper, The Oracle, published a staff editorial titled, “Incidents of hate and discrimination.” [Id. ¶ 42.] The article did not name Ms. Lopez Prater but repeated the assertion from Dr. Everett's email that what occurred in the October 6 class was “Islamophobic.” [Id.] The article also stated that the incident “harmed and traumatized” individuals in the Muslim community. [Id.] Later that day, Ms. Lopez Prater sent an email to Dean Kostihova and Ms. Baker calling out Dr. Everett's campus-wide email as defamatory. [Id. ¶ 44.]

Around this time, Dean Kostihova informed Ms. Lopez Prater that The Oracle was interviewing people about the events from her October 6 class and intended to publish another article about it. [Compl. ¶ 40.] Dean Kostihova informed her that the article would not include her name. [Id.] However, Ms. Lopez Prater was the only art historian on campus teaching the only art history class that semester. Ms. Lopez Prater asked that The Oracle not run its intended article about her October 6th class. [Id. ¶ 44.] But The Oracle nonetheless published the article on December 6. [Id. ¶ 45.] Multiple Hamline officials were quoted in the article. Hamline's Dean of Students stated that Ms. Lopez Prater's conduct was “an act of intolerance,” and the Assistant Director of Social Justice Programs and Strategic Relations said that Ms. Lopez Prater's showing of the paintings was “something that in a million years, [he] never expected . . . would happen . . . at Hamline.” [Id. ¶¶ 47, 48.] Dr. Everett told The Oracle that because of the incident, it was decided that “it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.” [Id. ¶ 49.]

In December 2022, during an in-person “Community Conversation” held on Hamline's campus, Jaylani Hussein, Executive Director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic relations (“CAIR-MN”) made several allegedly defamatory statements about Ms. Lopez Prater. [Id. at ¶ 56.] Mr. Hussein asserted that Ms. Lopez Prater showed the images of the Prophet Muhammad for no reason other than to “provoke, offend, and hurt” Muslim students, and that doing so was “Islamophobic.” [Id.] Mr. Hussein also asserted that Ms. Lopez Prater showed the paintings because she does not value Muslims the same as other minorities. [Id.] No Hamline official interrupted Hussein's statements. [Id. at ¶ 59.] And when Mark Berkson, a Hamline professor and Chair of the Department of Religion, tried to speak up in opposition to Mr. Hussein's statements, two members of Hamline's administration, Ms. Baker and Dr. Everett, placed their hands on his shoulders and told him to stop. [Id. at ¶ 57.]

After Hamline decided not to renew Ms. Lopez Prater's contract, it hired a different adjunct instructor to teach a spring semester course entitled “Visual Construction of Gender.” [Id. ¶ 69.] According to Ms. Lopez Prater, she was qualified to teach the “Visual Construction of Gender” course because she previously taught similar courses at other universities, but she was not asked to teach the spring course at Hamline. [Id. ¶ 70.]

Ms. Lopez Prater initially sued Hamline in state court. She asserted several claims: (1) religious discrimination in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”); (2) reprisal in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act; (3) breach of contract; (4) promissory estoppel; (5) defamation; (6) intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”); and (7) violations of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act. [Id. ¶ 99.] On February 7, 2023, Hamline removed the action to this Court, asserting that Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”) preempted Ms. Lopez Prater's state court claims. On February 9, Ms. Lopez Prater voluntarily dismissed her complaint against Hamline.

On February 9, Ms. Lopez Prater served the complaint at issue in this case in state court, removing her breach of contract and promissory estoppel claims. And on March 2, Hamline removed the action to this Court, again asserting that the LMRA preempts Ms. Lopez Prater's state court claims. [Notice of Removal, ECF 1.]...
Prater v. Trs. of the Hamline Univ. of Minn. (D. Minn. 2023)

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Ms. Lopez Prater alleges two theories of religious discrimination: 1) discrimination because she is not Muslim, and 2) discrimination because she failed to conform to certain religious beliefs of others (i.e., that it is improper to view images of the Prophet Muhammad). As to the “not Muslim” theory, Hamline argues that she fails to allege membership in a protected class and fails to show that circumstances permit an inference of discrimination. As to her failure-to-conform theory, Hamline contends that she cannot show that Hamline itself had the religious beliefs at issue, and that her theory based upon student preference is unavailing. Although the Court appreciates that Ms. Lopez Prater alleges unusual and somewhat indirect theories for religious discrimination, it does not believe that novelty in this context equates to failure to state a claim. Given the lens applicable at this stage, where a plaintiffs' allegations are taken as true, dismissal is not appropriate.

* * *

The Court found that Ms. Lopez Prater plausibly alleges that Hamline discriminated against her because she was not a Muslim or did not conform to a belief that certain Muslims share.

Outcome: Defendant's motion to dismiss granted in part and denied in part.

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