REVISED December 10, 2019
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Texas
CLEMENT, ELROD, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.
BROWN CLEMENT, Circuit Judge:
she was fired, Rebecca Musser sued her former employer, Paul
Quinn College, for retaliation under the False Claims Act.
The college maintains that it had legitimate reasons for
terminating Musser's employment, including that her
position was eliminated. But Musser claims that the college
retaliated against her for internally reporting allegedly
fraudulent practices by the college's chief financial
officer in securing federal grants. The district court
granted summary judgment to Paul Quinn College because Musser
failed to establish that the stated reason for her
termination was pretext for retaliation. We affirm the
district court's judgment.
Quinn College ("PQC") is a private, historically
black college in Dallas, Texas. A major source of PQC's
funding is federal grants authorized by Title III of the
Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, 20 U.S.C.
§§ 1051 et seq., which provides financial
assistance to historically black colleges and universities.
In 2007, during a period of financial and organizational
difficulty for the college, PQC hired Michael Sorrell as
president and tasked him with turning things around. One of
Sorrell's first actions was to hire Antwane Owens and his
company, Excellence Through Insight, Inc. ("ETI"),
to manage and oversee the college's finances. Owens
became the acting chief financial officer of the college, but
his position was only temporary while PQC searched for a
hired Musser as an independent contractor in March 2010.
Although Musser was not a certified public accountant and had
no experience with federal grants or nonprofit educational
institutions, she was tasked with providing financial and
accounting services to PQC as the college's interim
controller. Her job duties included overseeing the business
office, providing information for grant applications,
handling accounts payable, reviewing grant reports, and
preparing information for auditors. In performing her duties,
Musser worked with employees of eCratchit, an accounting firm
utilized by PQC to assist with bookkeeping functions. After
Musser's contract with ETI ended, PQC hired her directly
as its full-time controller, and she continued to work under
the supervision of Owens.
immediately after Musser's employment began, there were
problems with her performance. Between September 2011 through
early November 2011, Owens repeatedly counseled Musser about
her communicating directly with staff and students without
his approval, her failure to supervise an employee in the
business office who was submitting inaccurate timesheets, her
inability to explain financial issues clearly and concisely,
and her failure to accomplish assigned tasks. These issues
were no secret to Sorrell and his chief of staff, Lori Price.
problems with Musser eventually became mutual. On November
10, 2011, Musser sent an e-mail to Owens questioning whether
he performed federal grant drawdowns properly. Musser admits
that she did not expressly accuse Owens of fraud or illegal
activity in this e-mail. Meanwhile, Owens and Sorrell were
attending an out-of-town conference. While at the conference,
Owens and Sorrell discussed Musser's poor performance.
And on November 11, 2011, Owens submitted a memorandum to
Sorrell recommending that Musser be fired at the end of the
year. Sorrell agreed.
same day, Musser requested a meeting with Sorrell so she
could share some "important information" with him.
Sorrell did not immediately respond to her request. A few
days later, on November 14, Musser e-mailed Owens explaining
that there appeared to be a discrepancy in the amount of
grant money that PQC was claiming versus the amount that PQC
was spending. Owens asked Musser to prepare a spreadsheet
showing the discrepancy, but he could not understand the
spreadsheet that she created.
November 15, Musser followed up on her request for a meeting
with Sorrell. She explained that she wanted to alert his
attention to something that could be a "very serious
risk for the college." Sorrell was out of town, but he
told her that she could meet with Price in the meantime.
Later that day, Musser and Owens agreed to meet for coffee
the following morning. During their meeting on the morning of
November 16, Owens informed Musser that her employment would
be terminated at the end of the year.
November 17, Musser met with Price and expressed her
apprehensions about Owens's performance of his duties as
CFO. Musser then drafted a memorandum to Sorrell setting out
all of her concerns. She delivered the memorandum to Sorrell
on November 18. Unlike her previous communications,
Musser's memorandum explicitly accused Owens of
defrauding the federal government to secure federal funds.
receiving Musser's report, Sorrell immediately notified
PQC's Board of Trustees, and the Board hired a law firm
to conduct an independent investigation into her allegations.
On November 20, at the Board's directive, Sorrell placed
both Owens and Musser on administrative leave with full pay
and benefits pending the results of the investigation.
Sorrell was not involved in the investigation, but he learned
in January 2012 that the investigation had concluded and no
further action in response to Musser's report was