What happens when an employee is discharged under stigmatizing circumstances

University gives no teaching assignments to professor accused of disability discrimination

What happens when an employee is discharged under stigmatizing circumstances

In a recent case, a student filed a complaint alleging that her professor showed racial bias against her, routinely demeaned and embarrassed her in front of her classmates, and failed to offer the required disability accommodations for her dyslexia.

The plaintiff in that case was a tenured English professor who taught for over 50 years at Texas Woman’s University. One of her students, who failed a grammar and composition course that she taught via Zoom, brought the complaint against her.

The university put the plaintiff on paid administrative leave, opened an investigation, and eventually found enough evidence supporting some of the student’s allegations. The university gave the professor no teaching assignments and prevented her from performing other faculty duties. However, it did not terminate her. It also let her keep her tenure, salary, and benefits.

The plaintiff sued the university and seven of its administrators in their official capacities. First, she alleged due course and due process violations under the Texas and U.S. Constitutions.

Read more: Terminated teacher sues religious school for age discrimination

The defendants deprived her of property and liberty interests when it disallowed her from teaching or engaging with students since February 2021 without giving her the proper notice and opportunity to be heard, the plaintiff said. The university imposed a stigma on her that impacted her freedom to take advantage of employment opportunities, she added.

Second, the plaintiff claimed violations of her First Amendment rights. The defendants allegedly:

  • stripped her of her opportunity to teach
  • instructed her not to come to campus
  • told her not to talk to or communicate with anyone associated with the university
  • denied her the opportunity to grieve the dispute
  • gave her no opportunity to speak about or to challenge the findings in the investigation outcome letters

Claims against employer denied

The defendants challenged the court’s jurisdiction. The trial court sided with the defendants and agreed with their jurisdictional argument. The plaintiff appealed. She alleged that the administrators were not entitled to immunity in their official capacities.

In the case of Vivian Casper v. Texas Woman’s University, Abigail Tilton, Shannon Scott, Genevieve West, Symone Osieko, Carine Feyten, Carolyn Kapinus, and Katherine Antwi Green, the Texas Second Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

First, the appellate court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the defendants deprived her of a property interest in employment without due process of the law.

When a public employee is legitimately entitled to her employment, the due process clause may protect her status as an employee of the governmental employer and the economic fruits accompanying her position as “property,” the appellate court explained.

While the governmental employer may specifically create a property interest in a noneconomic benefit like a particular work assignment, the employee’s property interest generally does not create due process property protection for this benefit, the appellate court added.

In this case, the appellate court decided that the plaintiff failed to establish that she had an actionable due process claim for a property interest in employment since there was no evidence of an independent source creating the property rights that she allegedly had.

Second, the appellate court disagreed with the plaintiff’s claim that the defendants deprived her of liberty interests without due process.

A public employer is unconstitutionally depriving an employee of her liberty interests if it discharges her under stigmatizing circumstances without giving her an opportunity to clear her name, the appellate court explained.

To make this claim, the plaintiff should allege that she was a public employee discharged by the employer; that she faced stigmatizing, false, and public charges against her in connection with her discharge; and that she requested a name-clearing hearing, which was denied.

In this case, the appellate court determined that the plaintiff failed to prove that she had an actionable due process claim for liberty interests because she failed to allege that the administrators publicly disclosed the student’s allegations against her.

The plaintiff could not claim that she was stigmatized or that her reputation was harmed without providing facts that the public knew about those allegations or about any related negative employment action, the appellate court said. The plaintiff retained her position, the appellate court noted.

Lastly, the appellate court rejected the plaintiff’s claim of a violation of her First Amendment rights because she failed to show that the administrators acted with the purpose of censoring the content of her speech. The First Amendment did not protect her speech insofar as it demeaned students or denied them disability accommodations, the appellate court added.

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