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Law School Case Brief

Hatcher v. Cheng - 63 F. Supp. 3d 893 (S.D. Ill. 2014)

Rule:

When public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.

Facts:

Plaintiff Dr. Laura Hatcher was employed with Southern Illinois University ("SIU") as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science ("Department"), in the College of Liberal Arts from the fall of 2006 until the summer of 2013. From 2006-2012, Hatcher was a "tenure-track" professor, meaning she would ultimately be considered for tenure at a future date. That process began in Oct. 2011. If approved by SIU, Hatcher would have been tenured beginning in the fall of 2012. If denied, Hatcher's tenure-track professorship would be converted to a term position beginning in the fall of 2012 and ending in May 2013. On March 1, 2012, Dr. John Nicklow ("Nicklow"), SIU Provost, sent a letter to Hatcher officially denying her application for tenure. Accordingly, Hatcher's professorship was converted to a one-year term for the 2012-13 academic year. Hatcher responded by filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on Oct. 3, 2012. Subsequently, Hatcher appealed the denial of her tenure to the SIU Judicial Review Board ("JRB"), and a hearing was held. Nicklow testified at the hearing and told the JRB that Hatcher had filed an EEOC charge of discrimination. On Oct. 18, 2012, the JRB unanimously decided that Hatcher should receive tenure and overturned Nicklow's decision. The JRB panel's decision made reference to the testimony of Hatcher's colleague, who indicated that Hatcher was subjected to a hostile work environment as a result of her report of sexual harassment against a male faculty member. Hatcher was a mandated reporter under the terms of SIU's sexual harassment policy. The JRB panel's ruling was forwarded to the SIU Chancellor, defendant Rita Cheng, on Oct. 29, 2012. Cheng overturned the JRB panel's finding on Nov. 27, 2012. Hatcher's employment with SIU terminated in May 2013. Hatcher filed a discrimination action in federal district court against Cheng and others.

Issue:

Was Hatcher's termination violative of her First Amendment rights?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The court held that where Hatcher was working as an assistant professor when she was denied tenure and terminated after she raised concerns about sexual harassment of female students and sex harassment policies, her sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 survived. This was because she alleged that she was not granted tenure, and terminated as a result, because SIU had a policy within the department to only promote male tenure-track professors to tenure status. The court held that Hatcher's Title VII retaliation claim failed because she did not specifically identify the protected activity. The court found that Hatcher's Fourteenth Amendment due process claim failed because the expectation of continued employment was contingent upon a favorable outcome of the tenure application process. Finally, Hatcher's First Amendment retaliation claim failed.

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