Branham v. Thomas M. Cooley Law School, 689 F.3d 558 (6th Cir. 2012).

Tenured law professor Lynn Branham was terminated from Thomas M. Cooley School of Law (“Cooley”) and subsequently sued the law school in federal court on claims of violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and breach of contract.  The federal district court granted Cooley’s motion for summary judgment on Branham’s first three claims, but allowed her breach of contract claim to proceed.   The district court went on to rule that Cooley had breached its employment contract with Branham because it failed to follow the specified procedures for dismissal and ordered Cooley to comply with that process.  To comply with the Court’s order, Cooley held a faculty conference to determine whether there was good cause to dismiss Branham from her position.  The faculty concurred with the decision to dismiss Branham, and the Board of Directors unanimously upheld the faculty’s decision.  The district court then ruled that Cooley had fulfilled its due process obligations under the employment contract and that the process complied with Michigan law.  The court then entered judgment against Branham. 

Branham subsequently appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, arguing, among other things, that the district court erred in concluding that the tenure granted under her contract does not afford her rights beyond the one year term specified in her employment contract. The Sixth Circuit upheld the district court’s decision, concluding that Branham’s employment contract did not create an obligation of continuous employment, but rather expressly limited its term to one year.  The Court reasoned that while Branham may have had tenure in the sense that she had academic freedom, she was due only the employment protection and process specified in her employment contract.

Branham’s attorney subsequently filed a Petition for Rehearing en Banc on September 6, 2012. AAUP filed a motion and amicus brief in support of Branham’s petition which was authored by AAUP Committee A member Matt Finkin. AAUP’s brief argued that the district court ignored the well-developed body of law in which the courts have uniformly emphasized that tenure accords a continuing appointment until dismissal for cause.  Additionally, the brief noted that the courts have stressed that in construing the content of academic tenure, attention has to be paid to the relationship of tenure to the protection of academic freedom. Thus,“it is permanence of appointment that protects academic freedom in a way that a sequence of annual contracts simply cannot.” 

The Sixth Circuit issued an order on October 3, 2012, denying Branham’s petition for rehearing.

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