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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.

Selected Topics: Faculty & Staff
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Practice of Higher Education Law; Retaliation; Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration; Faculty & Staff

Taswell v. Regents of the Univ. of Cal. (Cal. App. May 14, 2018)

Opinion reversing the grant of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Summary Adjudication. Plaintiff, a medical doctor who worked for the University of California (UC) Irvine medical school as a nuclear medicine physician, alleged under state law that Defendant terminated him in retaliation for reporting alleged safety violations to state and federal agencies. Defendant contended that they placed Plaintiff on an investigatory leave of absence and declined to renew his contract because he entered a laboratory without authorization and had interpersonal issues with the staff, among other reasons. Because California law authorized Plaintiff to proceed in court following an adverse administrative decision, the Court deemed it unnecessary for Plaintiff to have filed a petition seeking a writ of mandamus to challenge the administrative decision. Further, the court declined to give preclusive effect to  the administrative decision, rejecting Defendant’s arguments that that matter was barred by res judicata or collateral estoppel. Last, the court found a triable issue of material fact as to whether a causal connection existed between UC’s decision to place Plaintiff on a leave of absence and UC’s decision not to renew his contract.

5/18/2018
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Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration; Employee Discipline; Practice of Higher Education Law; Faculty & Staff

Swauger v. University of North Carolina at Charlotte (N.C. App. May 15, 2018)

Opinion affirming Respondent’s Motion to Dismiss. Petitioner, a mechanic who worked for the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Charlotte, alleged that UNC dismissed him without just cause based on his refusal to sign a Google Terms of Service agreement for email use. At issue is whether Petitioner pursued the correct procedure to appeal an administrative law judge’s finding that UNC had just cause for his dismissal. After looking to the plain language of the relevant statutes and analyzing the case law, the court found that Petitioner did not pursue an “adequate procedure” for judicial review. As a result, the court held that the superior court properly dismissed Petitioner’s petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

5/18/2018
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Retaliation; Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA); Faculty & Staff

Carlson v. Chippewa Valley Technical College (W.D. Wis. May 11, 2018)

Opinion and Order granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff, a nursing instructor at Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC), alleged that CVTC’s decision to remove her from a special assignment after she took two weeks of medical leave violated the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), breached her employment contract, and breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Defendant contended that it removed Plaintiff from her special assignment based on her difficulty working with other colleagues, among other reasons. In awarding judgment to the Defendant, the court concluded that no reasonable jury could find that Defendant’s legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for removing Plaintiff from her special assignment were unlawfully motivated by Plaintiff having taken FMLA leave.  Although the timing of Plaintiff’s removal from her special assignment was suspicious, that alone was not enough to defeat summary judgment because Plaintiff’s difficulty working with other colleagues was not genuinely disputed, and the problems persisted after she returned from FMLA leave. The court discredited Plaintiff’s allegation that CVTC expected her to do work while on FMLA leave.  An email directing Plaintiff to “develop a plan of continuation of the project while on FML,” was merely an expectation that Plaintiff “plan for her leave” by reassigning or delegating duties, not an expectation that Plaintiff work during her leave. The court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s state law claims.

5/18/2018
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Tenure; Faculty & Staff

Vengalattore v. Cornell University (N.Y. App. Div. May 10, 2018)

Memorandum and Order reversing the judgment of the Supreme Court. Plaintiff, an associate professor at Cornell University, sought to annul the University’s denial of his promotion and tenure application pursuant to Article 78 of New York’s Civil Practice Law and Rules. Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that the University failed to adhere to its rules and procedures in considering his tenure application and took insufficient corrective actions to cure an instance in which a graduate student complaint was improperly brought to the attention of the tenure review committee. The court found that the University substantially complied with its rules and procedures and that the Provost’s final decision was based on a redacted record that did not include the graduate student complaint.  Moreover, the University did not deny Plaintiff tenure arbitrarily, capriciously, or in bad faith since the Provost, shielded from the graduate student’s complaint,  based the final tenure denial on evidence of unsatisfactory teaching and laboratory management.

5/16/2018
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Discrimination, Accommodation, & Diversity; Retaliation; Race and National Origin Discrimination; First Amendment & Free Speech; Constitutional Issues; Faculty & Staff

Patra and Vaz v. Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, et al. (M.D. Pa. May 8, 2018)

Order granting Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on all counts. After their teaching contracts at Bloomsburg University were not renewed, Plaintiffs sued, citing eleven allegations, including retaliation and race, national origin, and religious discrimination. The court concluded that Plaintiffs’ brief “utterly fail[ed] to explain” why the Court should not grant summary judgment to the Defendants on all claims. As examples, the court highlighted Plaintiffs’ failure to: (i) explain how their termination was “under circumstances that raise an inference of discriminatory action” under Title VII, (ii) explain what “adverse employment actions” were taken by Defendants; and (iii) provide evidence that they engaged in constitutionally-protected speech to support their First Amendment retaliation claims.

5/10/2018
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Employee Discipline; Faculty & Staff

Kenny v. Rider University, et al. (3rd Cir. May 3, 2018)

Opinion affirming the district court’s order granting Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff, an adjunct professor at Rider University (RU), alleged that RU committed fraud and libel, and breached a contract when it 1) suspended him for using the syllabus of a tenured professor whose course he was covering for a semester and 2) reported his suspension for misconduct to the State in connection to his application for unemployment benefits. In discovery, previously undisclosed emails indicated that the tenured professor gave her syllabus to the department chair to provide to her replacement. The court found that while Defendants’ disciplinary actions against Plaintiff were “perhaps overheated and uncalled for,” their behavior was not unlawful. Specifically, under New Jersey law, RU did not have a duty to disclose the emails before the parties initiated arbitration or in their settlement negotiations. Even if state law imposed a duty, RU was limited to disclosing documents the Provost collected when deciding to uphold Plaintiff’s discipline, per the request of Plaintiff’s union. Plaintiff’s libel claim against the tenured professor failed because her statements were not knowingly false, did not amount to reckless disregard for the truth, and therefore, fell “within a qualified privilege for reporting employees’ conduct to their supervisors.” Last, RU did not breach its settlement agreement with Plaintiff because RU was not required under the terms of the agreement to explain to inquiring parties that Plaintiff never admitted guilt to the misconduct charge.

5/8/2018
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Employee Benefits & ERISA; Faculty & Staff

Parkland College v. Ill. Workers’ Comp. Comm’n, et al. (Ill. App. May 1, 2018)

Order affirming the decision of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission to award Claimant benefits under the state Workers’ Compensation Act. Appellant is the Board of Trustees of Community College District No. 505, which includes Parkland College.  The Board appealed the decision of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, which awarded worker’s compensation to Lisa Eller, an instructor at Parkland College’s veterinary school for injuries that she sustained when she slipped and fell in a Parkland College parking lot. Appellant argued that Eller could not benefit from workers’ compensation because her injury did not arise out of and in the course of her employment. Specifically, Appellant argued that Eller failed to follow a designated path to her parked car and instead chose to walk through a reserved lot, thereby undertaking a risk for her own benefit and failing to act subject to Parkland’s control. The court found that the manifest weight of the evidence supported the Commission’s determination that Eller’s injury arose out of and in the course of her employment since Eller was injured on Parkland’s premises and Parkland knew that individuals frequently took that path to and from the building.

5/4/2018
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Retaliation; Race and National Origin Discrimination; Tenure; Faculty & Staff

Rodriguez v. Elon University (M.D.N.C. April 27, 2018)

Memorandum and Order granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff, a Hispanic professor of Puerto Rican descent and Faculty Director of the Chandler Family Professional Sales Center at Elon University, alleged under Title VII and section 1981 that Elon’s decision to deny him a promotion and tenure was made with discriminatory animus based on national origin and race. The court found that Plaintiff’s evidence did not give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination that would support the fourth prong of the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Further, Plaintiff could not rebut as pretext the several legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for denying Plaintiff a promotion or tenure—namely, the Dean and reviewing committee noted that Plaintiff favored certain students over others, was unresponsive to students outside of class, failed to meet teaching and advising expectations, did not contribute to the life of the University community beyond his paid position as Faculty Director, and produced scholarship of questionable quality. Plaintiff’s constructive discharge claim also failed, since he could not show that Elon’s decision to deny his tenure and promotion application was deliberately calculated to force his resignation, nor could he show that the conditions of his employment were so intolerable that a reasonable person would be compelled to resign. Last, the court dismissed Plaintiff’s retaliation claim because it was not first raised in his original complaint, nor was it included in his EEOC charge.

5/3/2018
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