• April 17, 2014

Court Rejects Law Professor's Assertion That 'Tenure' Means Continuous Employment

A federal appellate court has sided with a private law school in a case brought by a professor who contends she was wrongly fired, and both sides say the ruling is important for how it defines the concept of tenure.

The decision, issued on Monday by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, upholds a lower court's ruling that the termination of Lynn. S. Branham, former associate dean and professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, was not improper.

Ms. Branham had held a one-year teaching contract with the Michigan law school and was dismissed in December 2006, the final month of her contract year. A U.S. District Court decided the case in the law school's favor.

On appeal, Ms. Branham had argued, among other things, that the lower court had erred in concluding "that the tenure granted under her contract does not afford her rights beyond those specified in her employment contract."

She pointed to a law-school policy and to a guideline from the American Bar Association to support her assertion that, under her contract, "tenure means a lifetime appointment or a guarantee of continuous employment."

The Sixth Circuit panel rejected her arguments. Its opinion states that her contract referred to "the concept of tenure" but did not define tenure as a right to continuous employment or "create an obligation" of such.

Ms. Branham's attorney, Alan F. Blakley, said the ruling sets a dangerous precedent.

"This is a horrible, horrible decision for anybody who teaches," Mr. Blakley said. "Any college or university who wants to abuse faculty can hang their hat on this. They can change the definition of tenure to mean pretty much nothing."

Ms. Branham had primarily taught criminal-law courses since arriving at Cooley in 1983. In the spring of 2006, she was assigned to teach constitutional-law courses and did so—even after telling the dean she didn't want to and alerting him to health concerns that she said made it difficult for her to do so. Ms. Branham, who suffers from seizures, took a leave of absence during the summer of 2006. When assigned to teach constitutional-law after her return, she refused to do so. She asked to be assigned to criminal-law classes, citing her experience in that area. Instead, administrators at the law school fired her that December.

Administrators at Cooley, in a written statement, said the appeals court ruling was a "total vindication" of the school's decision to terminate Ms. Branham for refusing to do her job. The court's decision "is very important to institutions of higher learning because it confirms that 'tenure' is a contractual concept which takes its meaning only from the language of the particular employment contract and from nothing else," said James Robb, associate dean for development and alumni relations and senior counsel for the law school. "The word "tenure' itself adds no gloss," despite what Ms. Branham urged the court to consider, the statement said.

Ms. Branham is now a visiting professor at St. Louis University School of Law.

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