Cooley Law School prevails in appeal

In a decision released Aug. 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that the dismissal of former law professor Lynn Branham from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School faculty was proper.  Affirming a decision in Cooley’s favor by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in Grand Rapids in 2010, the federal appellate court sitting in Cincinnati found that, “Cooley’s termination process complies with Michigan and federal law, and Cooley followed the prescribed process.”  

 Branham, then a tenured professor, refused to teach what the district court termed "a normal and contractually permitted set of courses" assigned to her, insisting that she would teach only Criminal Law or Criminal Procedure. Cooley dismissed her after she refused to teach Constitutional Law, a course she had already agreed to teach.

Following a hearing in September 2009, the district court had ordered Cooley to provide Branham with a tenure proceeding in which the school's faculty and board of directors would be asked to concur in Branham's 2006 removal from the faculty by the school's president and dean.  Cooley's faculty then voted by an overwhelming margin of more than 4 to 1 to affirm that removal, and Cooley's board of directors unanimously approved the faculty's action.  Before the September 2009 hearing, the court had previously rejected claims by Branham that she suffered from a disability, that Cooley violated her rights under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and a similar Michigan statute, and that Cooley intentionally inflicted emotional distress. “Insubordination necessarily has real consequences in the workplace, even for tenured faculty,” the district court had said in entering the judgment in Cooley’s favor.

When Branham later questioned the validity of the tenure process and instead sought a jury trial for damages, the Sixth Circuit rejected her contentions, saying that Branham “received the remedy from Cooley, in the form of a hearing and a faculty conference vote on her dismissal, as prescribed by her contract.  The faculty conference concurred in her dismissal; the Board of Directors upheld this decision.”  The court added that, “Because we conclude that the process by which she was removed was lawful, the decision to dismiss Branham is final and binding.”
“The Sixth Circuit’s decision is a total vindication for Cooley’s removal of Branham for refusing to do her job,” said James Robb, Cooley’s Associate Dean for Development and Alumni Relations and Senior Counsel.  “The Sixth Circuit’s decision is very important to institutions of higher learning because it confirms that ‘tenure’ is a contractual concept which takes its meaning only from the language of the particular employment contract and from nothing else. The word ‘tenure’ itself adds no gloss, contrary to what Branham had urged,” Robb said.
“The decision vindicates Cooley’s particular good-cause process and reaffirms the long-established principle that institutions of higher education are entitled to manage their own affairs,” said Robb.  The appellate court stressed that “Where an internal grievance procedure such as Cooley’s is in place, and where it is followed, this Court does not have the authority to second-guess Cooley’s determination of good cause.”