Law professors teach students how to bring a case to court, but it turns out they aren’t particularly successful as plaintiffs filing suit on their own behalf.
Far more often than not, law professors lose when they sue over matters such as not getting hired, tenure denials, or pay disputes, according to an article in the latest edition of the Albany Law Review.
Author Robert Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center, wrote that his article, “Law Professors as Plaintiffs,” appears to be the first systemic study of lawsuits brought by law professors. He scoured court records to identify cases involving law professors, and excluded those in which they served as expert witnesses, pro bono counsel, or merely had their scholarship cited. The remaining cases skewed heavily toward employment matters centered on a few general issues, Jarvis found.
“What is particularly striking is how often the same three issues are at the root of these lawsuits: dissatisfaction with, and professional jealousy of, faculty colleagues; disagreements with, and distrust of, administrators; and feeling that others are receiving better, and undeserved, treatment,” Jarvis wrote.
He also determined that law professor suits are far more common in recent years—a change attributable to the fact that there are many more law schools and law professors today than in the past, and that the professoriate has become far more diverse by race and gender over the past several decades, which has opened the door to more discrimination suits.
Finally, Jarvis concluded that law professors are a sensitive bunch. “Many law professors are guilty of a shocking level of thin-skinnedness,” he wrote.
Jarvis identified suits brought by would-be professors who failed to get hired, many of which alleged age discrimination; untenured and tenured faculty who were fired; faculty whose contracts were not renewed for poor performance or lack of scholarship; and professors who were denied tenure, some of whom alleged a lack of proper procedure in their tenure reviews.
He found suits in which law deans sued their universities, among them former University of California, Berkeley School of Law Dean Sujit Choudhry’s unsuccessful 2016 lawsuit seeking to prevent the university opening a second investigation into claims of sexual harassment made by his executive assistant.
Law professors have also sued over their working conditions, including disputes over pay, health insurance and retirement benefits. Some have gone to court in connection with their scholarship, usually in an attempt to gain access to government documents. A few law professors have sued over reputational harm, often as defamation claims, while others have sued over their tax bills.
Among the cases Jarvis cataloged:
- Former Duquesne University School of Law professor Cornelius Murphy Jr., sued after he was fired for propositioning first-year female law students. A Pennsylvania trial court upheld the firing in 1999.
- A law professor at Indiana University sued a student of his in 1845 for failing to pay his tuition for two years. The university at the time had a rule that professors were personally liable for unpaid tuition. The professor lost.
- Alfred Avins, a law professor at Memphis State University, sued the Rutgers Law Review for rejecting his article on the basis that it was too conservative. A court sided with the law review in 1967.
“Law professors regularly step out of the classroom and into the courtroom to vindicate the rights of others,” Jarvis wrote. “Every so often, however, as this article has shown, they are seeking—and sometimes finding—justice for themselves.”