Thomas M Cooley Law School has
one helluva a bit of a public relations problem. The school has dealt with the inflated “independent law school rankings” (which placed Cooley second only to Harvard), subpoenas to silence Cooley critics, and the class action fraud suit that recent Cooley alum filed last year.
But Cooley isn’t just battling students and bloggers; it’s also been fighting its former faculty in the federal court.
Lynn Branham, once a tenured Cooley law professor, began teaching at the school in 1983. She primarily taught criminal law. She suffered from seizures on occasion. (Yes, that seems non-sequitur, but it's relevant. We promise.)
Branham signed a 12-month employment contract in December 2005, beginning January 1, 2006. In Spring 2006, Branham was assigned to teach classes in constitutional law and torts. She told Cooley Dean Donald LeDuc that she did not want to teach either class, citing health reasons (what?) and her experience in criminal law-related courses. Nonetheless, Branham taught what she was assigned. Until Summer 2006.
That's when Branham sold her house in Michigan, moved to Illinois, and took a leave of absence from Cooley. Though she was assigned to teach constitutional law after her return from leave, she refused to do so, instead asking to be assigned a criminal law class.
LeDuc dismissed Branham for insubordination in December 2006. The Cooley faculty didn't vote on Branham's dismissal -- as required under her contract -- so Branham sued, seeking damages for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and breach of contract. The first three claims were dismissed on summary judgment.
After a bench trial, the district court held that Cooley had reason to dismiss Branham because "insubordination necessarily has real consequences in the workplace, even for tenured faculty." It also concluded that Cooley had breached the employment contract by not following the dismissal process required by the contract. The court's solution? Equitable relief. Cooley had to give Branham the faculty vote her contract afforded.
That wasn't enough for Branham, who wanted "economic damages" for the three years between her 2006 termination and the court-ordered faculty vote. (Cut her some slack; she taught criminal law, not employment law.)
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that Branham's tenure didn't come with additional privileges or protections other than those specified in her employment contract. Tenure, as it turns out, isn't that special after all.
The appellate court found that the process the faculty conference employed to review and concur in Branham's dismissal was sufficient to comply with Branham's employment contract and federal and Michigan law, and that the district court didn't abuse its discretion in ruling that Branham was limited to equitable relief.
Once again, Cooley wins. (And in appellate court, no less.) For all the flack that Thomas M. Cooley Law School catches in the press, the school can hold its own in court.
- Branham v. Thomas M. Cooley Law School, et al (Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Class Action Lawsuit Against Cooley Dismissed (National Jurist)
- Court Clarifies Similarly-Situated Scope in Retaliation Claim (FindLaw's Sixth Circuit Blog)