Friday, August 7, 2015
In a case we have been following for a year (here, here, and here, for example), Stephen Salaita is suing the University of Illinois for withdrawing its offer to hire him to teach in its American Indian Studies Program after discovering some intemperate anti-Zionist tweets Mr. Salaita had posted. This week, a Federal District Court ruled on the University's motion to dismiss the claim. While the Court dismissed some of Salaita's claims, his breach of contract and first amendment claims were allowed to proceed. The case is Salaita v. Kennedy, and the opinion is here.
The claim that we care about is, of course, the breach of contract claim. Mr. Salaita signed an employment letter and so claimed that he had a contract with the University. The University claimed that there was no contract because the offer of employment was subject to approval of the University's Board, which never occurred. The Court carefully parsed the language of the offer letter and found that the offer was not conditional on board approval. Rather, board approval was a condition of performance of the contract; it was not a condition of the offer.
Although the Court conceded that the language of the offer letter might be ambiguous, the University's conduct resolved such ambiguities in favor of a finding of a contract. The University paid Mr. Salaita's moving expenses, gave him office space and an e-mail address, and referred to him as "our employee."
If the Court accepted the University’s argument, the entire American academic hiring process as it now operates would cease to exist, because no professor would resign a tenure position, move states, and start teaching at a new college based on an “offer” that was absolutely meaningless until after the semester already started. In sum, the most reasonable interpretation of the “subject to” term in the University’s offer letter is that the condition was on the University’s performance, not contract formation.
The Court then quickly rejected the University's argument that the Dean had no authority to make the offer to Mr. Salaita.