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New Cases and Developments

NACUA's Legal Resources staff summarizes current higher education cases and developments and provides the full text of selected cases to members. New cases and developments are archived here for up to 12 months.  Cases provided by Fastcase, Inc.

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Real Property, Facilities & Construction; Environmental Health & Safety

Regents of the University of Minnesota v. United States, et al. (D. Minn. July 12, 2018)

Order denying Defendants’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Plaintiff, the Regents of the University of Minnesota (UM), sought damages and declaratory relief against Defendants under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and Minnesota Environmental Response and Liability Act (MERLA) for costs they incurred while investigating the environmental effects of hazardous materials emitted from a cannon and rifle powder manufacturing facility built by DuPont, used by the U.S. government during World War II, and sold to Plaintiff through a quitclaim deed in 1948. The U.S. government brought a counterclaim for breach of contract, arguing that provisions of the quitclaim deed and contract for sale released it of any liabilities or responsibilities for claims under CERCLA, while UM argued that those same provisions only addressed the risk of residual explosives and did not include general environmental liability. The court found that the contracts supported both parties’ interpretations and therefore made its terms ambiguous. Specifically, the court noted that the broadly written provisions suggested liability beyond residual explosives, but the contracts’ execution thirty years prior to the passage of CERCLA raised questions about the parties’ awareness of general environmental liabilities. Accordingly, the court also allowed the U.S. government’s counterclaim for breach of contract to proceed to discovery.

7/17/2018
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Construction Projects & Contracts; Real Property, Facilities & Construction

Murnane Building Contractors, LLC v. Syracuse University, et al. (N.Y. App. Div. March 23, 2018)

Order reversing the Supreme Court of New York, denying Defendant Syracuse University’s Motion to Dismiss, and reinstating the mechanic’s lien. Plaintiff is a subcontractor hired by Defendant Cameron Hill Construction to work on the construction of a building for Defendant Syracuse University. Due to delays in construction, Defendants entered into a right-of-entry agreement, which required Cameron to acquire a mechanic’s lien waiver from Plaintiff for “work, labor, and materials furnished up to April 30, 2014” and which provided, “[n]othing in this [agreement] shall be construed as the consent or request of [defendant], express or implied, by inference or otherwise, to any contractor, subcontractor, laborer or materialman for the performance of any labor or the furnishing of any material for any improvement, alteration, or repair of the [p]remises.” In the present litigation, Plaintiff alleged that he was not paid for work performed after April 30, 2014 and sought a mechanic’s lien on the property. Under New York law, a mechanic’s lien cannot attach to real property if the owner of the property did not consent to the subcontractor’s improvements. The court found that Plaintiff stated a cognizable cause of action against Defendants because the consent provision in the right-of-entry agreement was not dispositive. Rather, the purpose of the right-of-entry agreement was to construct a building for the University and its non-consent provision was at odds with a prior ground lease entered into by the parties. Further, the plain language of the mechanic’s lien waiver did not release claims accruing after April 30, 2014, particularly where Plaintiff offered affidavits that showed that the lien waiver was not a release.

3/27/2018
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Retaliation; Disability Discrimination; Environmental Health & Safety; Discrimination, Accommodation, & Diversity; Real Property, Facilities & Construction

Forsyth v. University of Alabama Board of Trustees, et al. (N.D. Ala. Feb. 23, 2018)

Memorandum Opinion granting Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. Plaintiff, a carpenter for the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa (UA) who reported two instances of asbestos on campus, alleged disability discrimination and retaliation against Defendants following his termination, pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act (RA), the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act (ASHARA), the Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act (ASHDCA), the State Employee Protection Act, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The court dismissed Plaintiff’s RA claim because he failed to allege in his complaint that his depression and anxiety substantially limited a major life activity. The court further dismissed Plaintiff’s conclusory claims of harassment, failure to accommodate, and retaliation under the RA. On a matter of first impression, the court dismissed Plaintiff’s retaliation claims under the ASHARA and ASHDCA, holding that governing boards of postsecondary institutions were not “educational agencies,” and thus not subject to the statutes. Addressing Plaintiff’s section 1983 claims, the court dismissed Plaintiff’s First Amendment retaliation claim because his reports of asbestos contamination were not made as a private citizen, while Plaintiff’s procedural due process claims were dismissed because he did not allege a plausible property interest in his continued employment at UA, since the Complaint did not specify whether Plaintiff worked under a term contract or had some sort of contractual interest in lifetime employment. Last, Eleventh Amendment immunity protected Individual Defendants against Plaintiff’s section 1983 claims.

3/6/2018
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Real Property, Facilities & Construction

Texas Southern University v. Mouton (Tex. App. Jan. 11, 2018)

Opinion reversing the trial court’s order and dismissing Appellee’s claims. Appellee is a representative of Brent Randall, a college freshman who was killed on Texas Southern University (TSU)’s campus from a gunshot wound outside his dorm. Appellee brought claims of negligence and gross negligence against TSU for its purported failure to warn of the risks of harm on campus, failure to provide adequate security, and failure to make the campus safe after criminal activities. The sole question upon appeal was whether TSU’s governmental immunity was waived under the Texas Tort Claims Act, which establishes liability where a personal injury or death is caused by a “condition or use of tangible personal or real property.” The court found that the use or conditions of TSU’s property did not proximately cause Randall’s death and therefore, under the Act, Appellant had not waived its governmental immunity. Specifically, the court found that the gunshot wounds from a nonstudent that caused Randall’s death were unrelated to inadequate security, failure to warn, or failure to make safe any premise defects. 

1/17/2018
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Construction Projects & Contracts; Real Property, Facilities & Construction

Pizza Hut of America, L.L.C. v. Houston Community College System (Tex. App. Dec. 19, 2017)

Memorandum Opinion affirming the trial court’s finding that Plaintiff lacked standing. Plaintiff, Pizza Hut of America, L.L.C., alleges that as a tenant of Woodridge Plaza—a property acquired by Defendant Houston Community College System (HCCS) through a petition for condemnation for educational purposes—Plaintiff had standing in the condemnation proceeding and was entitled to a portion of the condemnation award. To establish standing in a condemnation proceeding and therefore to receive a condemnation award, a Plaintiff must show that they have a viable interest in the outcome of HCCS’s taking under its lease terms. Here, the court found that Plaintiff did not show that it had a viable interest in Defendant’s taking because Plaintiff did not suffer harm as a result of the condemnation, specifically because the condemnation did not impair Plaintiff’s physical access or use of the property, and Plaintiff did not incur any improvement costs or relocation expenses as a result of the condemnation. 

12/21/2017
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