IU prof denied summary judgement in nurse’s abortion retaliation case

A federal judge has denied a motion for summary judgment to an IU nursing professor on a First Amendment claim brought by an associate professor who alleges she was passed over for a teaching position at the school because of her pro-life views.

In 2016, Cynthia Isabell was hired as an IU adjunct professor in the school of nursing at its South Bend campus, where she taught a maternal-child nursing course. Almost two weeks after she was hired, Isabell posted a blog describing her switch to an anti-abortion mindset, titled “How a Formerly Pro-Choice Nursing Instructor Discusses Abortion with Her Students.”

When a full-time position at the university opened up, both Isabell and another individual applied and were interviewed. During the interview process, Isabell alleges the search and screening committee chair Teresa Dobrzykowski asked Isabell how she would “discuss controversial topics, healthcare controversial topics, and introduce them to students in a teaching manner” in response to reading the blog post.

Although Dobrzykowski testified that she frequently asked that question of candidates, the other applicant for the position said she was not asked that question by any of the committee members during her interview, including Dobrzykowski.

Isabell was later denied the position, prompting her to sue and allege that the blog exposing her views on abortion motivated the university in a retaliatory manner. Isabell’s suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, asserts a First Amendment claim against Dobrzykowski individually, as well as a claim under the Indiana Conscience Statute against the university’s trustees.

Northern District Court Judge Damon R. Leichty concluded in a Tuesday decision that genuine triable issues remain on the First Amendment retaliation claim. Leichty noted that while neither the dean, who made the final hiring decision, nor the other committee members knew of the article or Isabell’s views on abortion, Dobrzykowski was “at best” equivocal about when she learned about the article.

“On one hand, she testified that she does not ‘remember’ having known about the article at the time Dr. Isabell interviewed for the position; later she testified that she learned about the article ‘after’ the interview; and on the other hand, she testified that the article ‘came out in a conversation at the time of her interview,” Leichty wrote. “…A reasonable jury could credit her testimony that she knew about the blog at the time of the interview.”

The district court further found Dobryzkowski treated Isabell differently than the other candidate against university protocol when she allegedly asked about how Isabell would address controversial topics with her students.

“Dr. Dobryzkowski denies asking the question of only Dr. Isabell, and it is difficult not to believe a reasonable jury could find this response as dissembling when most everyone agrees she did,” the district court wrote. “Even Ms. Angelo Gatto, the other candidate, testified that Dr. Dobrzykowski never asked her about abortion, pro-life views, or teaching controversial issues.”

The district court additionally found that all committee members, excluding Dobryzkowski, expressed “serious concerns” about the interview and hiring process.

The court ultimately determined that summary judgment on the First Amendment retaliation claim was not appropriate in Cynthia Isabell v. Trustees of Indiana University and Teresa Dobrzykowski, 3:18-cv-364, though it did grant judgment to the school on Isabell’s state-law claim under 11th Amendment immunity.

Dobrzykowski is now the only remaining defendant.

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