A Washington, D.C., federal judge dismissed a breach of contract and wrongful termination lawsuit last week filed by a former law professor at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law who was denied tenure.
Stephanie Brown sued the university last May, accusing law school officials of violating the faculty handbook in how they handled her tenure evaluation and also of denying her tenure and firing her because of her race and gender. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon denied Brown’s request for a preliminary injunction in August and last week granted (PDF) the law school’s motion to dismiss.
Leon found that the handbook wasn’t considered a binding contract under the law. Even if it was, he ruled that Brown’s own pleadings showed that the school had followed the tenure review process as detailed in the handbook. Finally, Leon found that Brown failed to present concrete evidence that she was discriminated against as a black woman.
Brown’s attorney, Washington solo practitioner Donald Temple, called the decision "extreme" and said they’re weighing whether to appeal. "We show a clear double standard" in how the school handles tenure review, he said.
A lead counsel for the law school, Yoora Pak of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker in McLean, Va., declined to comment. A law school representative could not immediately be reached.
According to court filings, Brown had worked at UDC for 25 years, as an administrator and most recently as an associate law professor in the university’s law school. In January 2009, she applied for tenure and promotion to a full professorship.
The law school’s faculty evaluation and retention committee voted in favor of Brown’s tenure application. Law school Dean Katherine Broderick also voted in favor, although, as Leon noted in last week’s opinion, she expressed concerns about Brown’s lack of scholarship. The application was referred to Graeme Baxter, at the time interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, for consideration in December 2009.
In June 2011, Baxter told Brown that her application was rejected and that the 2011-2012 academic year would be her last with the university. In October of that year, university President Allen Sessoms officially approved the denial of tenure. Brown received formal notice that she was being fired in May 2012, and she filed her lawsuit shortly after.
Brown argued that Baxter and Sessoms unlawfully stood in the way of her tenure application in violation of the faculty handbook. But Leon found that the handbook, while intended as a reference for faculty, wasn’t intended to substitute for local laws or serve as a formal compilation of rules and procedures.
Even if the handbook was a contract, provisions of an agreement incorporated in the handbook explicitly state that tenure applications should be sent to the provost and that the university president has final say.
On Brown’s discrimination allegation, Leon wrote that she failed to show how her race or gender led to her tenure denial and firing. Brown "alleges no set of facts, beyond threadbare and conclusory assertions, from which a reasonable person could infer how her gender or race caused her tenure rejection," Leon wrote (emphasis in original).
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.