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Independent investigation into falsified credentials gets professor fired, not his race or cat’s paw retaliation

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

A tenured university professor who alleged he was discriminated against based on his race and discharged in retaliation for his complaints without any due process failed to produce any evidence in support of his cat’s paw theory of liability or show that the decisionmaker did not honestly believe the professor’s continuing misrepresentations of his credentials was a terminable offense. Nor did he show he was deprived of any required due process, said the court, affirming summary judgment against these claims as well as his defamation and breach of contract claims (Grant v. Trustees of Indiana University, August 31, 2017, Williams, A.).

Student complaints prompt investigation. During his 12-year career at the university, the tenured African-American professor won several awards. When several students complained, however, that he inappropriately cancelled classes, used obscene language, dismissed two students from his course without following proper procedure, and permitted a nonemployee to grade student work and access academic records, a vice chancellor assigned a dean to investigate. The dean, who found the professor evasive and uncooperative, recommended that he be denied travel funds and a salary increase. After the vice chancellor implemented these sanctions, the professor filed an affirmative action complaint alleging race discrimination.

Discrepancies in academic credentials. Meanwhile, the students reported their concerns to the local newspaper, which submitted open record requests to the university. While collecting records for a response, the vice chancellor noticed discrepancies in the professor’s employment records and determined that he misled the university when he applied for a positon by falsifying his academic credentials. He recommended dismissal to the faculty misconduct review committee, which noted that the issues were “troubling” but declined to proceed with a formal hearing.

Independent investigation. Six months later, the vice chancellor submitted a recommendation of dismissal to the chancellor, who hired an independent investigation firm. In its final report, the firm noted the professor had impeded its investigation by failing to provide consent to verify his employment and educational credentials. It also concluded that many of his credentials were “vague,” “misleading,” or “otherwise incorrect,” and based on this, the chancellor, after 20 failed attempts to meet with the professor, notified him that he was dismissed from the university due to his serious personal and professional misconduct. She also informed him that he could request a hearing, and although he stated that he planned to appeal, more than eight months later he terminated the process.

Lower court proceedings. He then sued the vice chancellor, the chancellor, the university, and its trustees, alleging 26 causes of action. The district court partially granted the defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings and later granted summary judgment as to the remaining claims. On appeal, the professor argued that the district court was wrong to summarily dispose of his claims for race discrimination, retaliation, denial of due process of law, defamation, and breach of contract created by the university handbook.

Discrimination/retaliation. Considering the professor’s discrimination and retaliation claims together, the court first observed that he claimed several pieces of evidence pointed to an illicit motive. But because these arguments and citations had not been included in his response to the defendants’ motion, the court would not consider it on appeal. Turning to his assertion that the vice chancellor had a discriminatory motive, when he then imputed upon the chancellor to influence her termination decision, the court found he failed to show the vice chancellor harbored any discriminatory animus against him.

Independent decisionmaking. Nor did he show the vice chancellor’s input was a proximate cause of his termination, as he never rebutted the defendants’ assertion the vice chancellor did not have any input or influence on the case after submitting it to the chancellor over a year before the professor’s termination. He also offered no evidence to show the chancellor did not rely on the independent firm’s finding in reaching her decision, said the court, finding he could not survive summary judgment on his cat’s paw theory of liability.

The professor also failed to show the chancellor’s stated nondiscriminatory reason was a lie intended to mask unlawful discrimination. Rather, the evidence supported her assertion that she believed his continuing misrepresentations of his credentials rose to the level of serious personal misconduct worthy of termination. Finally, the court found he failed to establish any fact disputes regarding the accuracy of the firm’s findings, which formed the basis of the chancellor’s belief that he misrepresented his credentials.

Due process. And while he claimed the defendants denied him due process by terminating him without following the process outlined in the university’s handbook, that process “does not constitute the process required by the federal Constitution,” the court observed, noting that the cornerstone of due process is notice and the opportunity to be heard “at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.” Because the professor made the decision to bow out of the post-termination hearing, the court turned to the sufficiency of the university’s pre-termination process. While the professor had a substantial interest in retaining his job, he was afforded notice and a detailed explanation of the charges and the evidence against him at every step of the two-year process, as well as ample and meaningful opportunity to be heard and to refute the charges against him. Moreover, the university hired an independent investigation firm with no bias or stake in the investigation’s outcome. Further, said the court, additional procedures would have been an unnecessary burden on the defendants, who had a legitimate interest in protecting the integrity of the university.

Defamation. As to his defamation claim, in which he alleged that statements in the newspaper’s articles were false, rather than point to any specific statement or cite any specific evidence, he merely cited to his 12-page attachment of various articles and to the chancellor’s entire 237-page deposition. Refusing to “scour the record in search of evidence,” the court found that summary judgment was properly granted against this claim.

Breach of contract. Finally, the court upheld the district court’s decision on his breach of contract claim, which was based on the university’s handbook, because the handbook expressly disclaimed the creation of any legal rights and the disclaimer applied to all campus-specific handbooks.