Ninth Circuit Upholds Firing of Arizona Law School Professors

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Ninth Circuit upheld the termination of two tenured law professors who said the Phoenix School of Law fired them for objecting to the school’s attempt to stop students from transferring.

“After four years of litigation, the law school is pleased that now two courts have upheld its position that it acted correctly in its dealings with former faculty members,” Nicole Stanton, an attorney for the school, said in an interview. “The school resolved from the beginning to stand by its position here, and the decisions of two courts, which include an award of attorney fees in its favor, speak for themselves.”

Celia Rumann and Michael O’Connor filed suit against the law school and its parent company, InfiLaw Holding, in 2013. According to the lawsuit, Rumann and O’Connor “objected to defendants’ proposed curriculum changes that would reduce students’ abilities to transfer to schools that the students perceive to provide better opportunities for job placement (described by Dean Shirley Mays as ‘building a better mousetrap’).”

The professors, who are married to each other, also claimed Phoenix School of Law – now renamed Arizona Summit Law School – and InfiLaw Holding were “explicitly and virulently opposed to faculty tenure.”

O’Connor received tenure in 2010, and Rumann in 2011.

The couple called into question appointment letters they received from the school for the 2013-2014 school year, claiming they were not specified as “tenure contracts” and did not adhere to the faculty handbook.

Rumann and O’Connor refused to sign the letters, requesting instead that Phoenix School of Law execute contracts that they had proposed. The law school responded by withdrawing the offers of employment, the lawsuit said.

U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton dismissed Rumann and O’Connor’s lawsuit in 2014 for failure to state a claim.

In a memorandum order issued Monday, a three-judge panel found the professors’ interpretation of the appointment letters “unreasonable.”

“As noted, the appointment letters expressly state that the positions being offered are ‘full time ‘tenure’ position[s].’ This has the effect of resolving any latent ambiguity that might otherwise have existed. And contrary to appellants’ position, the Faculty Handbook does not use the term ‘appointment’ exclusively in relation to non-tenured positions,” the panel wrote in its 11-page memorandum.

The law school was not in breach of its contract with the professors because any changes by an employee to the appointment letter amounted to “automatically nullify[ing] the offer,” the order ruled.

O’Connor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Stanton is with Quarles & Brady in Phoenix.

U.S. Circuit Judges A. Wallace Tashima and William Fletcher sat on the panel with U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian from the Eastern District of Washington.

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