Federal and State Courts Dismiss Lawsuits Against Community College

Federal and State Courts Dismiss Lawsuits Against Community College

Recently, two separate courts agreed with CMDA that the lawsuits two former community college instructors filed against the college should be dismissed.

The underlying facts showed that two full-time instructors were involved in a series of conflict resolution sessions where both parties were advised to be civil and follow the rules of the college. The evidence also showed that when one of the full-time instructors was going up for tenure, the two plaintiffs, a former full-time tenured instructor and a former part-time instructor, engaged in a whisper campaign to disparage and discredit the instructor who was trying to achieve tenure status. The two plaintiffs involved students in their efforts to compromise the other instructor’s efforts to attain tenure. The solicited students wrote anonymous and negative e-mails to the college’s administration at the same time the instructor was going up for tenure. When the instructor seeking tenure filed complaints about their behavior, the college’s internal investigations resulted in recommendations that both plaintiffs be terminated.

Following their terminations, both plaintiffs sued. The part-time instructor alleged in a federal court lawsuit that she was retaliated against and fired contrary to the anti-retaliatory provisions of Title IX because she gave favorable witness statements on behalf of her colleague for the underlying Title IX investigation. This plaintiff’s economist expert quoted her damages as exceeding $300,000. The full-time instructor filed a lawsuit in state court alleging that he was a “whistleblower” who was fired in retaliation for making a FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. §1232g) complaint with the college. This plaintiff’s economist expert quoted his damages as exceeding $1.5 million. The unfortunate part of the case was that the identity of the anonymous students was outed and that is why the plaintiff filed a FERPA complaint. As it turns out, however, had the plaintiff not involved students in his efforts to discredit the tenure seeking instructor, the students would not have been drawn into an employment dispute at the college in the first place.

Both the Federal Court and the State Court granted the college’s Motions for Summary Judgment and Summary Disposition respectively. The Federal Court Judge found that the plaintiff’s evidence did nothing to show that her Title IX testimony in support of her colleague was a significant factor contributing to the recommendation that her part-time teaching position not be renewed. Further, the Court found that the college articulated legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons for not re-appointing the plaintiff and that there was no illegal pretext discrimination.

Likewise, the State Court Judge found that the plaintiff had not presented a prima facie case of whistleblower retaliation because he could not prove through direct or circumstantial evidence that he was fired because he made a FERPA complaint. The Court agreed that the evidence undisputedly and objectively demonstrated through the findings of the internal investigations, that the plaintiff should be terminated because of egregious behavior toward a fellow colleague, violations of confidentiality and inappropriately engaging students in an employment dispute.

One plaintiff in this case has very recently filed an appeal, which CMDA is currently vigorously defending.

Elizabeth Rae-O’Donnell is an attorney in our Livonia office where she concentrates her practice on municipal law, employment and labor law, and education law. She may be reached at (734) 261-2400 or erae@cmda-law.com.

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