Tenure does not guarantee a job for life, a federal appeals court has declared in affirming the dismissal of a former professor’s lawsuit against the Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

Lynn Branham was fired in 2006 and sued, accusing the school of violating its internal procedures and the protections of the tenure system.

But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on August 6 ruled that Branham was not entitled to any job protections beyond her 12-month contact, even though she was a tenured faculty member.

Additionally, the appeals court agreed that a faculty tenure hearing held three years after Branham was initially fired fulfilled the school’s procedural obligations.

James Robb, Cooley’s senior counsel and associate dean for development and alumni relations, called the ruling an important reaffirmation of the right of colleges and universities to manage themselves.

“The Sixth Circuit’s decision is a total vindication for Cooley’s removal of Branham for refusing to do her job,” he said.

Branham countered that the judges did not seem to understand the meaning of tenure. She predicted that the decision would have repercussions far beyond Cooley.

“This has been a long, hard, tortuous journey,” Branham said. “I do believe the decision is legally erroneous.”

According to her complaint, Branham had taught criminal law at Cooley since 1983 and held tenure. Cooley administrators cited her refusal to teach constitutional law in her dismissal.

She claimed that she was fired in retaliation for opposing the law school’s hiring of the husband of board member Jane Markey, a judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals. Branham alleged that his hiring was the result of a conflict of interest and that he was not qualified. She sued Cooley for breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Cooley did not hold a faculty hearing before her 2006 dismissal, which violated the school’s internal procedures, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker ruled in September 2009. He dismissed the intentional infliction of emotional distress and ADA claims, but ordered that Cooley convene a faculty conference to discuss Branham’s tenure. That conference took place in October 2009, and the faculty upheld Branham’s dismissal. Branham later claimed that the tenure hearing did not fulfill the judge’s mandate and that she was not allowed to call witnesses or present certain evidence. However, Jonker ruled that the school had complied with Michigan law.

Branham also argued that her job was protected under the tenure system, even though her actual employment contract covered 12 months. The appeals court disagreed.

“While Branham may have had ‘tenure’ in the sense that she had academic freedom, and that she and Cooley generally expected that they would enter into a new employment contact in subsequent years, nothing in her employment contract, or the documents incorporated by reference therein, provides for a term of employment greater than one year,” the court said.

“The Sixth Circuit’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,” Robb said.

Branham, now a visiting professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, offered a different view. “Tenure is not a one-year contract,” she said. “Tenure means you have a job unless there is a finding of just cause according to a set of procedures.”

She said she was considering her legal options.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.