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Ruling for IU in black student’s discrimination suit upheld

June 18, 2019

A 7th Circuit Court of Appeals panel affirmed the denial of a black student’s discrimination suit against Indiana University, finding no abuse of discretion in resolving discovery disputes regarding her classmate’s demographics.

Catherine Wanko, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Cameroon, began her dentistry studies at IU in the fall of 2014. When she failed two of her courses during the 2014-2015 school year, Wanko was given a second chance to pass one of her classes during the summer.

When Wanko was unable to meet the score requirements during the remediation class, she was informed she would have to repeat her entire first year curriculum. Wanko was dismissed from the school altogether when she failed to complete her second attempt the following school year. 

In 2016, Wanko sued IU, challenging it discriminated against her based on race when it failed to promote her to the second‐year curriculum. She specifically alleged that a few other students in similar situations who were not black were promoted, while she was not.

The school produced requested spreadsheets of the demographics and grades of Wanko’s former classmates, which included GPA, grades, race, and gender of each student, but no names. Wanko was one of two black students who failed both classes during the 2014-2015 school year, with the exception that while Wanko unsuccessfully completed her remediation course, the other student was successful and therefore allowed to proceed.

Unsatisfied, Wanko moved to compel production of the actual student records and argued the ones provided were unreliable. The motion was denied, and IU was granted its motion for summary judgement by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. 

Southern District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt held that the provided spreadsheet information was sufficient and that Wanko had not shown a good-faith reason why she could not respond to IU’s motion for summary judgment. Pratt also concluded that Wanko could not succeed on her discrimination claim because she could not identify a similarly situated, non‐black student who received better treatment.

On appeal, Wanko asserted that the district court erred when it overruled her objection to the denial of her motion to compel, as well as her motion to postpone summary judgment. But the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found no issue with the determination in Catherine Wanko v. Board of Trustees of Indiana University, 18-2767.

First, the 7th Circuit found no reason to conclude decisions made by the magistrate judge and the district court rejecting Wanko’s argument that the spreadsheets were unreliable to be beyond the bounds of discretion. It came to a similar conclusion on the denial of her motion to postpone summary judgment.

“Wanko certainly has a need for information about her fellow classmates (races, grades, etc.), and without such information could not meaningfully respond to a motion for summary judgment. The problem for Wanko is she already has this information in the spreadsheets IU provided,” Circuit Judge Daniel A. Manion wrote for the panel. “Having rejected Wanko’s argument concerning the veracity of those spreadsheets, the district court reasonably concluded Wanko had no need for the actual student records.”

Therefore, the 7th Circuit found Wanko did not provide a good-faith reason for her failure to respond to the university’s motion. It was not an abuse of discretion for the court to deny Wanko’s Rule 56(d) motion and rule on IU’s motion for summary judgment, the panel concluded.

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