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Hiatt v. Colorado Seminary

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

June 2, 2017

TAWNY HIATT, Plaintiff-Appellant,
COLORADO SEMINARY, a Colorado nonprofit corporation; ALAN KENT; JACARANDA PALMATEER, Defendants-Appellees.


          Charlotte N. Sweeney (Ariel B. DeFazio, with her on the briefs), Sweeney & Bechtold, LLC, Denver, Colorado, appearing for Appellant.

          Jim Goh (Heidi K. Wilbur, with him on the brief), Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP, Denver, Colorado, appearing for Appellees.

          Before HARTZ, MATHESON, and PHILLIPS, Circuit Judges.

          MATHESON, Circuit Judge.

         Dr. Tawny Hiatt appeals from the district court's grant of summary judgment to her former employer, Colorado Seminary, and her former supervisors, Dr. Alan Kent and Dr. Jacaranda Palmateer, on her Title VII and Title IX discrimination and retaliation claims. Exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         The following facts are presented in the light most favorable to Dr. Hiatt, the non-moving party on summary judgment. See Twigg v. Hawker Beechcraft Corp., 659 F.3d 987, 997 (10th Cir. 2011).[1]

         Colorado Seminary owns and operates the University of Denver ("DU"), including DU's Health and Counseling Center ("HCC"), which provides wellness services such as counseling to DU's student body. In November 2011, DU hired Dr. Hiatt to be a Staff Psychologist and the Training Director at the HCC.

         The following recounts Dr. Hiatt's employment at DU from November 2011 until her resignation in June 2014.[2]

         1. Dr. Hiatt's Position as Training Director and Her Supervisory Duties

         As Training Director, Dr. Hiatt was responsible for supervising psychology students seeking their professional licensure. Supervisees included both pre-doctoral interns and post-doctoral fellows.[3] Dr. Hiatt was, in turn, supervised by Dr. Kent, the Executive Director of the HCC, and Dr. Palmateer, the HHC's Director of Counseling Services. Apart from her work at DU, Dr. Hiatt also maintained a private practice, which DU permitted so long as her job at DU remained her first priority.

         From November 2011 to August 2012, Dr. Hiatt supervised four interns, including Dr. Emily Fogle, from DU's Graduate School of Professional Psychology ("GSPP") Internship Consortium. After the academic term, the interns provided positive reviews of Dr. Hiatt's supervision.

         When Dr. Fogle returned to the HCC as a post-doctoral fellow, she requested that Dr. Hiatt supervise her during the 2012-2013 academic year. They started their supervisory relationship in the fall of 2012. Soon thereafter, Dr. Fogle suggested to Dr. Abby Coven, her former GSPP classmate, that she hire Dr. Hiatt to supervise her work in a private practice unaffiliated with DU. Dr. Coven did so.

         In December 2012, Dr. Hiatt and Dr. Coven developed romantic feelings for one another. On January 3, 2013, Dr. Hiatt ended her supervision of Dr. Coven's work in private practice. They continued their personal relationship.

         On January 1, 2013-before anyone at DU knew about Dr. Hiatt's relationship with Dr. Coven-Dr. Hiatt was promoted to Assistant Director of Counseling Services/Training Director. In this role, Dr. Hiatt continued to supervise students, including Dr. Fogle as a post-doctoral fellow and a group of HCC interns-Dave Shanley, Kim Mathewson, Alexis Wilbert, and Christine DeVore.

         2. Revelation of the Relationship

         On January 28, 2013, Dr. Coven told Dr. Fogle about her romantic relationship with Dr. Hiatt. Dr. Fogle told Dr. Palmateer about the relationship and that she had seen text messages showing it had started before Dr. Hiatt ended her supervision of Dr. Coven. Dr. Hiatt disputes that any such messages occurred.

         Dr. Fogle also told Dr. Hiatt's four intern supervisees about the relationship. Dr. Fogle then expressed her concerns about the relationship to Dr. Hiatt. Dr. Hiatt offered to stop supervising Dr. Fogle, but Dr. Fogle declined.

         Dr. Kent and Dr. Palmateer decided to hold an "open meeting" on February 19, 2013, with Dr. Hiatt and her supervisees so the supervisees could air any concerns. During the meeting, Dr. Hiatt apologized for disappointing the supervisees and explained how her supervision of Dr. Coven was different from that of an intern.

         3. Post-Meeting Events

         After the meeting, four relevant events happened.

         First, Dr. Fogle, Dr. Mathewson, and Dr. Shanley elected to end supervision with Dr. Hiatt. Dr. Wilbert and Dr. DeVore, along with Dr. Hiatt's four graduate student supervisees, continued their supervision with Dr. Hiatt.

         Second, Dr. Kent met with Dr. Fogle after the meeting. Dr. Fogle reported that supervision with Dr. Hiatt was like therapy. Dr. Fogle explained that Dr. Hiatt "had [her] sobbing in her office, " and that Dr. Hiatt "made [her] feel vulnerable." Id.[4] According to Dr. Hiatt's own deposition testimony, supervisees called the experience of crying or breaking down during supervision with her as "being Tawny-ed." Id. at 166.

         Third, Dr. Kent sought ethics guidance from DU administrators, psychologists unaffiliated with DU, and the American Psychological Association ("APA") about Dr. Hiatt's relationship relative to her work. Based on those conversations, Dr. Kent determined Dr. Hiatt was in an "ethical grey area." Id. at 66 ¶ 13. The asserted grey area arose from two rules in the APA's Code of Conduct: one prohibiting a psychologist from having sexual relationships with supervisees, [5] and another prohibiting a psychologist from having a personal relationship with someone closely connected to someone with whom the psychologist has a professional relationship.[6]

         Fourth, Dr. Kent talked frequently with Dr. Hiatt about these matters. According to Dr. Kent, Dr. Hiatt failed to acknowledge that the way she handled her relationship at work had detrimental effects on her supervisees. Further, rather than take personal responsibility for the supervisees' reactions, Dr. Hiatt blamed the supervisees' pathologies as causing their strong reactions, including their decisions to stop supervision with her. Dr. Kent also said Dr. Hiatt showed no awareness of how her supervisory style affected them. Apart from ethical concerns, Dr. Kent determined that Dr. Hiatt's conduct showed "a serious lack of judgment given her position as a role model for the trainees." Id. at 66 ¶ 13.

         4. The Demotion Decision

         On February 22, 2013, Dr. Hiatt met with Dr. Kent and Dr. Palmateer. Dr. Kent presented Dr. Hiatt with three options: (1) resign; (2) be demoted and undergo six months of outside counseling about her supervisory style; or (3) remain in her position and allow Human Resources ("HR") to handle the matter.

         Dr. Kent and Dr. Palmateer explained they were presenting these options because: (1) a "majority" of trainees refused to be supervised by Dr. Hiatt and she had lost "credibility and authority in their view"; (2) her conduct posed a "grey ethical issue, " and a Training Director needed to display "exemplary ethics, boundaries, and professionalism"; and (3) her "approach to therapy and supervision requires a strict adherence to boundaries which weren't demonstrated in this situation" and her response to the students' reactions showed a "lack of personal responsibility." Id. at 450.

         On February 27, 2013, before Dr. Hiatt chose an option, her attorney sent DU a letter claiming DU's request for Dr. Hiatt to leave her position as Training Director amounted to sex discrimination.

         On March 4, 2013, Dr. Hiatt accepted the second option-demotion. In her new position as Staff Psychologist/Outreach Coordinator, Dr. Hiatt was paid $58, 000-a $2, 000 reduction in pay from her previous position.

         5. Period of Demotion

         As a condition of her demotion, Dr. Hiatt met with Dr. Shirley Asher, an outside consultant. Based on her sessions with Dr. Hiatt, Dr. Asher opined that Dr. Hiatt "likely could return" to a supervisory role, but also noted that she was not likely to change her supervisory style. Id. at 526.

         During this time, Dr. Palmateer gave Dr. Hiatt a performance review that criticized her for taking paid time off in a manner that made her unavailable to her clients. Dr. Hiatt nonetheless received a raise of $500, which Dr. Hiatt calls "negligible." Aplt. Br. at 16.

         In August 2013, Dr. Kent and Dr. Palmateer reassessed whether Dr. Hiatt should return to supervision. Based on Dr. Asher's input, some supervisees' negative feedback in their exit interviews about Dr. Hiatt's supervision style, and Dr. Kent's and Dr. Palmateer's own observations, they determined that Dr. Hiatt should not return to supervision at that time. They shared with Dr. Hiatt the supervisees' "perception that she intentionally breaks them down to the point of tears, is intrusive in their personal issues, blurs the boundaries of supervision and therapy, and then holds herself up as the rescuer." App. at 109. They also shared their own concerns that she had behaved unprofessionally in staff interviews, had unclear boundaries when supervising, and continued to focus on the supervisees' psychopathologies as explaining why they were upset about the way she handled the relationship at work, rather than acknowledging her contribution to their concerns.

         In September 2013, Dr. Hiatt filed an internal grievance with DU's HR department requesting, among other things, that DU restore Dr. Hiatt to her position as Training Director. In the same month, she filed an internal Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") complaint with DU alleging sex discrimination, as well as retaliation.

         In a September 26, 2013 response to her internal EEO complaint, Dr. Kent and Dr. Palmateer further detailed their reasons for demoting Dr. Hiatt and not returning her to a supervisory position. They explained that, because Dr. Asher stated Dr. Hiatt would not likely change her supervisory style, they did not reinstate Dr. Hiatt's supervisory duties.

         Their response also reported that "several" supervisees in their exit interviews described "troubling interactions" with Dr. Hiatt-such as denigrating other HCC staff members, "sham[ing]" the supervisees and then trying to "rescue" them, and insisting that a supervisee give her a hug during a supervisory session. App. at 526-27. Those examples led Dr. Kent and Dr. Palmateer to believe Dr. Hiatt had "very poor boundaries which create[d] a hostile training environment." Id. at 527. The response also highlighted that Dr. Hiatt continued to blame the supervisees and their associated "pathologies" for the upheaval at the HCC, and that she failed to demonstrate awareness of how she contributed to the situation or how her supervisory style negatively affected the supervisees.

         Dr. Kent and Dr. Palmateer explained in summary:

While Dr. Hiatt's romantic relationship with her supervisee was not the reason for her removal from supervisory duties, it was the catalyst for a series of complaints which le[d] to a comprehensive review of her supervisory approach and her performance as Training Director. After the majority of trainees refused to be supervised by Dr. Hiatt, we had no option but to reevaluate her role. After several meetings with Dr. Hiatt and extensive conversations with the trainees, many concerning and disturbing behaviors about Dr. Hiatt's supervisory style were revealed. We determined that it was in the best interest of the trainees, the University, and the [HCC] to find a more suitable Training Director.

Id. at 528.

         In an October 2013 email to Dr. Hiatt, DU set forth criteria for Dr. Hiatt to eventually resume supervision, including having "better awareness about the power she holds" and "demonstrating appropriate professional boundaries in all contexts." App. at 546.

         On October 30, 2013, following an investigation, DU denied Dr. Hiatt's internal EEO complaint.

         6. Medical Leave and EEOC Charge

         From November 15, 2013, to February 2, 2014, Dr. Hiatt took a medical leave of absence because the work environment at DU was causing her problems such as panic attacks.

         On December 23, 2013, while on medical leave from DU, Dr. Hiatt filed a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleging ...

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