August 09, 2012
Contract Dispute at Thomas M. Cooley Law School
On August 6, 2012, the Sixth Circuit decided Branham v. Thomas M. Cooley Law School, a case involving the termination of a tenured law professor, Lynn Branham. Professor Branham, currently visiting at the St. Louis University School of Law, is an expert in criminal law and had been teaching at Cooley Law School since 1983. For some reason, the Cooley Law School asked her to teach constitutional law and torts in Spring 2006. She complained but complied and then went on leave for a semester. When she returned, she was again asked to teach constitutional law. When she refused, she was terminated.
A District Court found that Professor Branham had not been properly terminated, because the dismissal process had not been in accord with those provided for in her employment contract. Cooley then followed the proper procedures -- Cooley's faculty voted to dismiss Branham and the Cooley's Board of Directors upheld that decision. The District Court was thereby satisfied, and it entered judgment for Cooley.
The Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court's ruling on the breach of contract issue. Professor Barnham had entered into a one-year contract with Cooley, and the fact that she had tenure did not create rights beyond those provided in the employment agreement. She was entitled to a faculty vote and then the vote of the Board of Directors. Both of those occurred, and the Sixth Circuit was not overly concerned with the fact that they occurred tardily.
Under Michigan law, an employer's process must comply with five elements of "elementary fairness": notice, opportunity to be heard, formulation of issues and fact, a rule of finality and other procedural elements appropriate to the nature of the proceeding. The Sixth Circuit was satisfied that the elements of elementary fairness were met in this case.
One might think that Professor Barnham should be entitled, at the very least, to damages for breach of contract for the period during which she had been dismissed without appropriate procedures, but the Sixth Circuit found that because Cooley eventually followed the appropriate procedures, Professor Barnham had no claim for damages. She was only entitled to equitable relief, which she apparently recieved when Cooley complied with the District Court's order to give her appropriate process.
The Sixth Circuit opinion focuses on the contractual issues and on the question of whether Cooley followed the appropriate procedures for the termination of a faculty member. The Court defers to the faculty members who determined that Cooley had "good cause " for termination of Professor Barnham. We can only hope that, at some point, some body with authority to make such a determination de novo will recognize that a tenured faculty member's refusal to teach courses removed from her area of expertise does not constitute "good cause" for her termination.
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