Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Individual Employee Rights and COVID-19
Part II (What we really want to know):
Can faculty be terminated for refusing to teach in person?
Part I of this symposium contribution addressed the general public and private law rules bearing on whether an employer can lawfully terminate an employee who refuses to return to work because of COVID. This Part focuses on a specific example of considerable interest to our community: tenured university faculty members seeking to teach remotely. But first, one brief (and final) digression . . .
I. Unforeseen circumstances
Those who focus primarily on B2B contracts may think that I gave short shrift to the unprecedented nature of a global pandemic in Part I. Much of the commercial world is consumed with the question of whether contractual obligations can be set aside due to catastrophic circumstances. But excuse doctrines are of less significance in the employment context where, under employment at will, the law imagines that parties have no long-term obligations to one another.
In the case of employees with contract rights, however, concepts like impracticability could conceivably be brought to bear. If this were an actual exam question rather than a real-life dilemma, I would expect students to invoke doctrines of excuse. I would also expect them to begin their invocation with two mantras that I force then to incant in class:
Contract liability is strict liability. It does not matter why a party fails to perform, only that the contract terms have not been satisfied. If we were to imagine that the contract clearly obligated the employee to work in person, then her failure to do so is a breach even if she is acting justifiably. The same holds for the employer: if it is contractually obligated to provide a safe work environment, it is liable for its failure to do so despite its inability to fully contain the risks that make the workplace unsafe.
Changed circumstances do not excuse contract performance. Rather, they are the reason we contract in the first place. In entering a contract, parties obtain a degree of security in the face of an uncertain world: whatever happens, the other side is obligated to perform. The tradeoff is that come “hell or highwater,” they must perform too.
Of course, those are baseline principles. There are exceptions, and COVID-19 would appear to be a textbook example. Doctrines like impracticability exist to absolve a party from breach when an event so outside the norm of what either party expected makes performance virtually impossible. A global pandemic surely fits the bill for an unforeseen event – one so extraordinary that neither party can be blamed for failing to anticipate it at the time of drafting.
Whether the employee’s performance is indeed impracticable is a more nuanced question. Coming to work is not physically impossible. Its practicability or impracticability depends on a number of fact-driven considerations ranging from the contact-intensiveness of the work, to the employer’s mitigation efforts, to the employee’s underlying health issues. But such matters need not detain us. At this point I hope students recall the difference between recission and breach. Impracticability generally operates as a shield not a sword, meaning the employee could use the doctrine to relieve herself of any continued commitment to serve the employer. But what the employee wants is either to continue the relationship on her terms (remotely rather than in person) or access the remedies associated with breach of contract. Recission is not the outcome anyone is seeking.
Or maybe it is. If any party is going to make a successful COVID-based impracticability argument, it is likely to be the employer, and not with regard to the safety or feasibility of in-person work. Rather an employer might be inclined to argue that the dire economic fallout from the virus has made it all but impossible to retain the employee for the duration of her contract. This argument may sound eerily familiar to readers whose universities have begun or threatened to lay off faculty pursuant to exigent financial circumstances provisions in their appointment and tenure policies. Such language is the faculty-employment-contract counterpart to a force majeure clause, and the prospect of its deployment is sobering. For present purposes, though, we will stick with the question of remote versus in-person work, rather than the dreaded scenario of no work at all. But word of warning to otherwise job-secure employees seeking to draw on excuse doctrines in the fight to obtain remote work: be careful what you wish for.
II. Are faculty a special case?
And now to the much-awaited question: what are the possible job consequences to faculty who decline to teach in person?
Tenured faculty members are similar to corporate executives. True, they earn less. But they have the equivalent of an individual written contract precluding termination absent specific grounds in the form of the university’s promotion and tenure policy. Unlike individual written contracts, it never ends. An executive at the top of the corporate hierarchy generally has a fixed term of employment. If the employer does not have the grounds or the stomach to terminate her during the life of the contract, it can wait it out and refuse to renew. The same goes for so-called “contract” faculty, whether or not they are on a tenure track. These employees can be terminated upon contract expiration absent any presumption of renewal. Not so with tenured faculty. If the university wishes to terminate a tenured professor for refusing to teach in person, it must establish that her conduct satisfies the narrow and exclusive criteria under which tenure may be stripped for performance-related cause.
In some cases, these causes may be even narrower than the already pro-employee definitions found in the high-level employment contracts of the corporate world. Consider the following publicly posted example from the tenure policy of a large public university in the southeast (that is not my employer):
Cause for termination must directly and substantially affect the fitness of the faculty member to function … in an academic community, or be related to a serious failure of a faculty member to discharge his or her obligations to [the University]. Examples include, but are not limited to, serious professional or personal misconduct, serious failure to perform academic duties in accordance with generally accepted norms, conviction of a serious crime and serious violations of [University] policy.
Just count the number of times the word “serious” appears to qualify the grounds for removal, and you see which way the deck is stacked. It will be extremely difficult for this university to revoke the tenure of a faculty member for refusing to teach in person but still genuinely seeking to fulfill those obligations in a different modality. This is particularly so if the faculty member is still fully performing her other “academic duties” – scholarship and institutional service.
In addition to having exceedingly narrow justifications for removal, university personnel policies on tenure revocation guarantee affected faculty a robust form of internal review. Depending on the type and culture of the institution (public or private, large or small, strong or weak traditions of faculty governance), this process will vary. It may be styled as a disciplinary proceeding or a grievance, it likely involves review by a particular faculty committee or governing body, and it probably concludes with an appeal to the university’s board of regents or trustees. Universities not being known for their institutional efficiency, this process can take a very, very long time. In addition, any failure to comply with the required procedural steps can itself create a breach of contract, potentially giving the professor another bite at the apple.
In sum, even if a university is confident that it has substantive grounds to remove a tenured faculty member, it may lack the ability to execute on it. By the time it dots and crosses every “i” and “t” of its procedures, the pandemic will surely be over. At that point one can imagine a simple resolution under which the university drops its charges and the professor quietly returns to the classroom.
Let us return to the not-so-hypothetical question that began Part I. I end all of my exams with the same instruction: Advise the client. If a colleague who fears both for her safety and her job asks me what to do about institutional pressure to teach in person, I need to provide a coherent response, not the meandering intellectual analysis we subject ourselves to grading (or which I have imposed on you here). This is where the true teaching moment lies: students learn that lawyers do not make decisions, but merely lay out the likely results of different scenarios. Ultimately the client must weigh the strength of her convictions against her tolerance for risk. All things considered, tenured faculty are well positioned to take the risk of refusing to return to in-person work. Most employees -- including many elite workers who enjoy just cause protection -- are not.