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Saffari v. St. Cloud State University

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

August 13, 2014


Judith K. Schermer, Judith K. Schermer PLLC, Counsel for Plaintiff.

Kathryn Fodness and Kristyn M. Anderson, Minnesota Attorney General's Office, Counsel for Defendants.


MICHAEL J. DAVIS, Chief District Judge.


This matter is before the Court on Defendants St. Cloud State University and President Earl H. Potter III's Motion for Summary Judgment. [Docket No. 19] The Court heard oral argument on April 11, 2014. Finding no genuine dispute of material fact, the Court grants Defendants' motion.


Plaintiff Mahmoud Saffari is suing his former employer, St. Cloud State University ("SCSU"), and its President, Earl H. Potter III.

A. Factual Background

i. Plaintiff's First Four Years at SCSU

Plaintiff is a 53-year-old Muslim man of Iranian descent. (Saffari Aff. ¶ 2.) In 2003, Plaintiff began working at SCSU as Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management under President Roy Saigo. (Anderson Aff., Ex. 1, Saffari Dep., Ex. 4.) This was an important position in SCSU's administration, and Plaintiff served at the pleasure of SCSU's President as a member of his leadership team. (Potter Aff., Docket No. 22, ¶¶ 3-5.) This position was one of at-will employment. (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Personnel Plan for Administrators, AdminPlanNonLeg.pdf, at 9, § 1.03, subd. 3(a) ("Administrators serve at the pleasure of the Chancellor/president and no provision of this Plan shall be construed to alter the at-will nature of an administrator's employment.").)

Plaintiff's job duties were as follows:

[To] design, develop and implement a comprehensive enrollment management plan to achieve the desired size and profile of the student body.... The Associate Vice President works not only with faculty and staff throughout campus and across divisions but also with the external constituents... to develop short and long-term enrollment management plans, establish objectives and develop strategies in support of those plans, facilitate implementation of enrollment management strategies, and monitor progress toward enrollment management goals.

(Potter Aff., Ex. A, at SAFFARI 2740.) Plaintiff's position was an important one with substantial responsibility; he managed a two million dollar budget and supervised 30 employees and 24 student workers. (Potter Aff. ¶¶ 3-4.)

During his initial years at SCSU, Plaintiff was supervised by SCSU's Provost, Michael Spitzer. (Potter Aff. ¶ 2.) Spitzer and Plaintiff developed a negative working relationship during these years. (Id.) Plaintiff claims that Spitzer removed many of Plaintiff's duties, refused to put Plaintiff's suggested items for discussion on the President's Council agenda, refused to hire a Dean of Admissions, refused to give Plaintiff a computer, and generally created obstacles for Plaintiff. (Saffari Aff. ¶¶ 6-11.) In 2005, Plaintiff filed a discrimination complaint against Spitzer. (Saffari Aff. ¶ 12.) SCSU lost the complaint documents Plaintiff submitted, and there was disagreement over how to conduct the investigation. (Id.)

ii. Changes in Leadership at SCSU and Plaintiff's Subsequent Performance

On July 1, 2007, Potter became SCSU's new President. (Potter Dep. 5.) Potter asked Plaintiff to develop and implement a comprehensive enrollment management plan. (Potter Dep. 44-45, 48-49.) Plaintiff was told that the plan should contain detailed statistical analysis of enrollment trends. (Id.) In 2007, Plaintiff presented Potter with a 96-page document, but because the plan lacked the data analysis Potter requested, Potter rejected the document and told Plaintiff to lead the Enrollment Management Committee ("E/M Committee") in developing the requested data analysis. (Potter Aff. ¶ 6; Potter Dep. 48-49; Saffari Aff. ¶ 15, Ex. A.) The E/M Committee, which met biweekly, was comprised of 30 to 35 members from all areas of SCSU. (Palmer Dep. 7, 9.) However, for over two years, in spite of informing other administrators that the enrollment management plan was in development, Plaintiff did not produce the data analysis. (Potter Dep. 21, 77-78; Malhotra Dep. 19-20.)

Plaintiff offers a different account of his interaction with Potter regarding the enrollment management plan. Plaintiff asserts that Potter accepted the plan document and never commented on its contents. Rather, Potter simply instructed Plaintiff to come up with a new plan. (Saffari Aff. ¶ 16.)

Meanwhile, Plaintiff's discrimination complaint against Spitzer was investigated in 2008. (Saffari Aff. ¶ 12.) Plaintiff was told by the investigator that the affirmative action officer at SCSU referred to Plaintiff as "that Arab guy who's giving us a hard time." (Saffari Dep. 80.)

iii. Conversation with Potter About Iranian Politics

At some point in 2008, in the midst of Plaintiff's problems with Spitzer, Potter called Plaintiff to discuss his relationship with Spitzer. (Saffari Dep. 24-25.) Potter asked Plaintiff if his relationship with Spitzer was sour because Spitzer was Jewish and Plaintiff was Muslim. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that Potter also engaged in a conversation or conversations with Plaintiff about the politics of Iran, attempting to get him to admit that the Shah was better than the current political leadership. (Saffari Dep. 77-78 (detailing one such conversation that took place in 2007; the timing of any other similar conversations is unclear from the record).) Potter also asked Plaintiff's opinions about the Mullahs and the established government of Iran. (Id.) These conversations made Plaintiff feel very uncomfortable, and he felt that Potter did not approve of his political views. (Saffari Aff. ¶ 44; Saffari Dep. 78.)

iv. Potter Decides to Retain Plaintiff, and Malhotra Becomes Provost

In 2009, Spitzer recommended to Potter that the administration should be reorganized and Plaintiff's position should be eliminated. (Potter Aff. ¶ 2.) Potter thought that Spitzer's impending retirement would give Plaintiff an opportunity to have a fresh start with a new supervisor, Provost Devinder Malhotra. (Potter Dep. 41; Potter Aff. ¶ 2.) Therefore, Potter decided to reject Spitzer's recommendation and retain Plaintiff. (Id.)

Malhotra became Provost in July 2009. (Malhotra Dep. 5.) Spitzer, before leaving, told both Potter and Malhotra that he was dissatisfied with Plaintiff's performance. (Potter Dep. 18.) In addressing the enrollment management plan, Malhotra charged a subcommittee of the E/M Committee to develop a predictive model for enrollment management. (Palmer Dep. 9.) At times, Malhotra would tell Plaintiff that he and the members of the E/M Committee "were on the right track." (Saffari Dep. 35.) Plaintiff asserts that, during his two years reporting to Malhotra, he never received a performance evaluation. (Saffari Aff. ¶ 26; Malhotra Dep. 33.) Plaintiff asserts that, in May 2011, Malhotra agreed with Plaintiff in setting a goal date of November 2011 to present a completed enrollment management plan. (Saffari Aff. ¶ 29.) Malhotra could not recall the deadline imposed. (Malhotra Dep. 19.)

v. SCSU's Budget Shortfall

SCSU is required to submit its enrollment projections and budget requests to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System Office each April. (Potter Aff. ¶ 7.) The System Office relies on these forecasts and requests to determine its income and expenditures. (Id.) By the spring of 2011, Plaintiff still had not yet created the enrollment management plan based on data analysis that Potter had repeatedly requested. (Potter Aff. ¶ 8.) Plaintiff had, instead, given forecasts on enrollment based on anecdotal information, such as the number of students who had enrolled the past fall, and Plaintiff assured Potter that the projections were accurate. (Potter Aff. ¶¶ 8-9; Potter Dep. 21-22.)

These projections predicted a decline in enrollment for the fall of 2011. (Palmer Dep. 17, 21.) Malhotra insisted that the forecasts were too conservative, and he asked the E/M Committee to add 250 FYE (full-year equivalent, i.e., a unit indicating full- or part-time undergraduate or graduate students) to the projected number of enrolled students, which Plaintiff claims made the projections inaccurate. (Saffari Dep. 50-52; Saffari Aff. ¶ 28.) Plaintiff claims that the E/M Committee disagreed with adding the 250 number, but had no choice but to accept Malhotra's instructions. (Id.) As a result, the prediction for students was "off by the additional 250 that he added." (Id.) Defendants assert, however, that SCSU relied on Plaintiff's forecasts in developing and submitting a budget for the 2011-2012 academic year. (Potter Aff. ¶ 9.)

In August of 2011, SCSU learned that its actual enrollment for the fall semester had a significant shortfall: the differential between Plaintiff's projection of enrollment and actual enrollment was between 800 and 1000 students. (Potter Aff. ¶ 10; Potter Dep. 126.) Consequently, SCSU had to make a one million dollar emergency budget adjustment. (Potter Aff. ¶ 10; Potter Dep. 24-25, 71.) While Potter did not blame Plaintiff for the enrollment decline itself, he attributed SCSU's emergency budget situation to Plaintiff's failure to provide enrollment forecasts based on data analysis after Potter's repeated requests. (Potter Aff. ¶ 11.)

vi. Plaintiff's Speech at the August 1, 2011 Leadership Retreat

On August 1, 2011, Plaintiff attended a leadership retreat for senior management. (Saffari Dep. 38-42.) At the retreat, Plaintiff asked about the method of choosing focus groups for a marketing presentation that was being given; Plaintiff asked whether subjects for the focus groups had been selected at random or handpicked. (Saffari Dep. 39, 44-45.) Plaintiff asserts that, at this point, Potter became angry with him; Potter glared at Plaintiff and, in an angry tone of voice, stated that they would move on to the next agenda item. ( Id. at 40.)

Plaintiff also asserts that, later in the retreat, Plaintiff made a comment regarding SCSU's reputation for being a party school. (Saffari Dep. 40-42.) Plaintiff stated that this reputation may have negatively affected enrollment, and he suggested ways to change the perception. (Id.) Plaintiff asserts that Potter became angry, stood up, cut Plaintiff off, and ended the discussion by announcing that it was time to take a recess. (Saffari Aff. ¶ 37.) Plaintiff felt that no one wanted to speak to him or associate with him because of Potter's display of anger towards him. (Id.) Potter later testified that there was no discussion about terminating Saffari before this retreat. (Potter Dep. 68.)

Potter stated that he expected Plaintiff to publicly support policies that had been internally decided on and implemented by the school, as Plaintiff was a member of Potter's leadership team. (Potter Aff. ¶ 12; Potter Dep. 131-33.) However, Potter thought that Plaintiff's speech placed blame for enrollment losses on others, and this reflected poorly on the University and its administrators. (Potter Aff. ¶ 12; Potter Dep. 130-36.)

vii. Plaintiff Disallowed from Speaking to the Faculty Senate

In September 2011, Plaintiff was invited by the Faculty Senate to attend their meeting, report enrollment statistics to them, and address their concerns about enrollment. (Saffari Aff. ¶ 31.) Plaintiff told Malhotra that he had been invited to make the presentation; he showed Malhotra the invitation to check and see if it was permissible for him to attend, as speaking to the Faculty Senate was not within Plaintiff's usual job duties. (Saffari Aff. ¶ 31; Malhotra Dep. 61-62.) Malhotra told Plaintiff that Malhotra would go to the meeting instead because it was Malhotra's responsibility to make such presentations, not Plaintiff's. (Id.) Malhotra stated that, "[M]y decision was based on the fact that there should be one voice speaking for the administration when we were invited to the Faculty Senate. And relationships with the Faculty Senate are my direct responsibility, so I was acting out of that." ( Id. at 62.)

viii. Disbandment of the E/M Committee

After the budget shortfall, Malhotra and Potter made the decision to reorganize the administration to improve enrollment management. (Potter Dep. 75; Malhotra Dep. 48.) They decided to disband the E/M Committee because it had not developed an enrollment management plan using data analysis. (Potter Aff. ¶ 13; Potter Dep. 75-76; Malhotra Dep. 19-20.)

On August 19, 2011, Malhotra notified the E/M Committee that the committee was being suspended, explaining that "we need to provide you better tools, in the form of data analytics and a strategic enrollment management approach(es), in order for the committee to do its work successfully." (Anderson Aff., Ex. 1, Saffari Dep., Ex. 41, at Saffari 0001.) A new team was created, and Malhotra took responsibility to oversee an "Enrollment Executive Council... to develop a strategic enrollment framework that will be used to develop the overall enrollment management plan." Id.

ix. The Strategic Planning Committee Meeting with Foss

Plaintiff contends that he spoke at a Strategic Planning and Effectiveness Committee meeting on September 1, 2011. (Saffari Aff. 38.) During this meeting, Plaintiff attributed the enrollment decline to management decisions to reorganize and cut student majors for the 2011-2012 academic year. (Id.) Upon making this statement, Plaintiff alleges that he was silenced by Lisa Foss, Associate Vice President and Associate Provost for Strategy Planning and Effectiveness. (Id.; Foss Dep. 5.)

Plaintiff also asserts that he accused Foss of racial discrimination at this meeting, citing the fact that she cut off people of color when they attempted to speak. (Saffari Aff. ¶ 38.) When Plaintiff attempted to raise ...

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