Virginia Tech Must Face |Due Process Claim

     (CN) – A former institute director at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute has standing to argue that he was denied his due process rights when his job was changed and he lost funding for his research, a federal judge ruled.
     Harold Garner, the beneficiary of the May 5 ruling, joined the Virginia Tech staff in October 2009, after having been aggressively recruited to serve as executive director of the school’s Bioinformatics Institute.
     He served in that position until March 2012, when he was informed that as a result of an audit of his department, he was being moved to another position, although he would still be paid the same salary.
     In his complaint, Garner said he took the change in his job stride until he learned, on June 30, 2014, that his laboratory funding — $500,000 for equipment and other resources and $500,000 to employ key researchers — was being cut.
     Garner said as a result of his losing his lab funding, six people in his employ were let go, “essentially brining productive work in his laboratory to a halt.”
     Garner sued, but on October 9, 2014, saw much of his complaint tossed by a federal judge. In the end, his only claim to survive was property interest claim for prospective injunctive relief.
     In allowing that claim to go forward, the court emphasized that a “critical consideration” to be resolved was whether, under the terms of the university’s handbook, Garner’s change in position constituted a severe sanction.
     The defendants moved for summary judgment on the final claim, arguing that Garner’s change in position was not a severe sanction because his salary had not been reduced.
     But Chief U.S. District Judge Glen E. Conrad disagreed.
     “The current record reflects that the parties continue to dispute the scope and nature of the benefits conferred on Garner by his initial employment contract with the University,” Conrad wrote. “For example, Garner cites evidence suggesting that the laboratory funding … was provided in lieu of an endowed professorship, was intended to be available on an on-going basis, and was not designed for VIB’s institutional use. … The defendants point to evidence contradicting each of these assertions.”
     As a result, Conrad concluded, “Summary judgment would be inappropriate in the face of such factual disputes.”
     The university further alleged that Garner waived any constitutional rights argument when he signed the agreement to his position reassignment, but constitutional claims supersede contractual claims and do not end when a new contract is signed, Conrad wrote.

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