(CN) – A tenured professor at the University of Southern Mississippi was given another shot at blocking administrators from barring him from teaching based on his alleged “disruptive and intimidating” behavior.
The 5th Circuit reinstated Chauncey DePree’s bid for an injunction against the university, but said he could only sue administrators in their official capacity.
The interim dean of the university’s business college sent the president, Dr. Martha Saunders, a letter stating that “Dr. DePree has engaged in behaviors that have severely constrained the capacity of SAIS [School of Accountancy and Information Systems] and the College of Business,” and that DePree had helped create “an environment in which faculty members and students do not feel safe to go about their usual business.”
Included with the letter were eight other letters from professors, describing the purported disruptive and intimidating behavior.
DePree was relieved of all teaching duties while the university investigated the claims, but he was allowed to continue his research. His pay, benefits, title and tenure remained the same.
DePree sued Saunders and other university officials, claiming they retaliated against him for criticizing the university and some of its faculty members on his Web site and for complaining to the accreditation agency about the school.
The New Orleans-based appeals court upheld the dismissal of DePree’s claims against the administrators in their individual capacity.
Saunders, who ultimately made the decision, is protected by qualified immunity, and the other faculty members and administrators “merely contributed to her decision-making process, the 5th Circuit ruled. And the way Saunders handled the complaints “did not violate a clearly established constitutional right,” Judge Edith Jones added.
However, the court said DePree might have a case for an injunction against the administrators in their official capacities.
“Issues surrounding the protected status of the speech, whether there is an actionable adverse action, and whether Saunders could have legitimately disciplined DePree for his conduct despite some element of First Amendment retaliation are factually complex,” Jones wrote for the three-judge panel.
“Due to these uncertainties, we remand DePree’s injunctive claim based on First Amendment retaliation for further development.”