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A federal judge has effectively gutted a former Emory business professor’s legal action against the school. The case started with mysterious scuff marks to cherry veneer in a hallway at the school and led to a prominent scholar’s resignation. Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld was not slandered by Emory President William M. Chace, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper said in an order signed May 24, Sonnenfeld v. Emory, No. 1:98-CV-1555-CC (N.D. Ga. May 24, 2000). The order for partial summary judgment on behalf of the university in 10 of 12 counts in the suit removes the allegations that carried the most potential for monetary damages. Cooper also ruled Emory is not liable for Georgia Tech’s withdrawal of a job offer to Sonnenfeld. Georgia Tech had tentatively named Sonnenfeld dean of its Dupree School of Management, but withdrew the offer after talking to Chace. Claims against Emory business school dean Ronald E. Frank and Emory police Capt. Ray Edge also were tossed out. Sonnenfeld’s case against the university remains alive, however. Cooper found that issues of fact remain as to whether Sonnenfeld was deprived of due process when Edge asked for, and obtained, Sonnenfeld’s resignation and whether Sonnenfeld was coerced by campus police into resigning — a breach of his tenure contract. Emory’s attorney, David L. Green of Atlanta’s King & Spalding, declined to comment. Emory spokeswoman Jan Gleason also declined to comment, citing a gag order that Cooper issued last February for everyone associated with the case. Sonnenfeld’s attorney, R. Keegan Federal Jr. of Keegan Federal & Associates, also of Atlanta, did not return phone calls. STRANGE CASE OF VANDALISM Damaged woodwork is at the heart of Sonnenfeld’s resignation and the suit that followed. Sonnenfeld, the founder of Emory’s Center for Career Leadership and Career Studies and the author of several books on corporate leadership that brought him national recognition, had been regarded as a rising star in the academic world. For months after Emory’s Goizueta Business School opened in 1997, business school administrators had noticed that the walls, doors, and cherry veneer woodwork in the new building were repeatedly scuffed, scratched and gouged, even after being repaired. On Thanksgiving Eve that year, campus police installed a hidden surveillance camera in the business school’s fifth floor corridor where faculty and administrators had offices. Within two hours, the camera captured Sonnenfeld meandering down a hallway after hours. Sonnenfeld appeared to be kicking the walls, and the professor later conceded that his feet may have touched and scuffed the walls as he ambled down the hallway “lost in thought,” according to court records. Acting on instructions from Chace, Emory police confronted Sonnenfeld with the videotape, advised him of his Miranda rights, told him he was a suspect in the vandalism of the business school and then asked the professor to resign. Sonnenfeld denied intentionally damaging university property but submitted his resignation. He later said he was coerced into resigning. Sonnenfeld had unsuccessfully sought the post of business school dean at Emory. He then received an offer from Georgia Tech to head its business school. That offer, which was contingent on acceptance by the Board of Regents, was withdrawn shortly after Sonnenfeld resigned from Emory. The withdrawal of the offer from followed a call from Chace to the Georgia Tech president explaining the reasons behind Sonnenfeld’s abrupt resignation, according to court records. Sonnenfeld blamed Chace for losing the Georgia Tech post, as well as alleged damage to his reputation when the story behind his resignation became public. But Cooper said because the offer to Sonnenfeld to head Georgia Tech’s business school had not been approved by the Board of Regents, it was “merely a contingent offer” over which Sonnenfeld had no legal claim. In addition, Cooper determined that Chace’s informing Georgia Tech’s president of the circumstances surrounding Sonnenfeld’s resignation was not motivated by any deep-seated animosity against the professor. “While the evidence does show some level of professional disagreement between [Sonnenfeld] and certain administrators at Emory, including President Chace,” Cooper wrote, “This is not tantamount to a deep-seated animosity necessary to support this claim.” ACTUAL MALICE STANDARD APPLIED Cooper also determined that Sonnenfeld — whose anticipated move from Emory to Georgia Tech had been the subject of news reports — is “at least a limited purpose” public figure. As a result, statements made by Chace to Georgia Tech President Donald Clough, the New York Times and U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Decatur, would have to be made with “actual malice” for Sonnenfeld to prevail, Cooper wrote. And Cooper found no malice. That led him to throw out Sonnenfeld’s slander claims against Chace and Emory Dean Frank, despite some evidence, according to Cooper, “of ill will or tension.” Sonnenfeld had alleged that Frank had slandered him when he told officials with the University of Maryland, where Sonnenfeld also had applied for a job, that Sonnenfeld was “a loner” and “unwilling to invest in junior colleagues.” “Dean Frank’s opinions do not, in this Court’s judgement, imply defamatory facts,” Cooper wrote. Cooper also noted that Sonnenfeld himself complained to McKinney, prompting the congresswoman to call Chace on Sonnenfeld’s behalf. Calling Chace’s subsequent conversation with McKinney “invited slander,” Cooper noted Sonnenfeld knew or should have known Chace would respond with unfavorable information. The judge also dismissed Sonnenfeld’s claim that Emory’s actions constituted intentional infliction of emotional distress, saying, “the facts and circumstances in this case do not rise to the level of outrageousness or egregiousness that is required under the law to support a claim.”

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