On Friday, July 6, 2018, the Wisconsin Supreme Court determined that Marquette University had breached its contract with tenured professor John McAdams when it suspended him for discretionary cause after he authored a controversial blog post. McAdams claimed that the blog post fell within his rights to protected speech and academic freedom, whereas the University claimed that it was an unprofessional attack that was outside of those protections. Because the Court determined that the blog post was protected by the doctrine of academic freedom, which was guaranteed under the professor’s contract and could not be used as a basis for discretionary cause, the Court held that the University had breached the contract because the blog post was a “contractually-disqualified basis for discipline.”
The University argued that the Court had to defer to its internal procedures for suspending and dismissing faculty members and could not second-guess its choices unless the University had abused its discretion, infringed on the faculty member’s constitutional rights, acted in bad faith, or engaged in fraud. However, the Court found that “the University’s internal dispute resolution process is not a substitute for Dr. McAdams’ right to sue in our courts” and that it did not have to defer to the disciplinary procedure because 1) it was fundamentally flawed due to the unacceptable bias on the Faculty Hearing Committee (the “Committee”); 2) the Committee had no authority to bind parties to its decision, because the parties had not agreed that the internal dispute process would replace or limit the adjudication of a contract dispute in court, as can be done with an arbitration agreement; and 3) there was no required procedural process to defer to because, although the Committee makes a recommendation, it is the University president that ultimately makes the disciplinary decision, and there were no rules, procedures, or standards that describe how the president was to make his ultimate decision.
This case should serve as a reminder to all private employers that, while courts generally defer to the decisions of an employer, they will not do so if those decisions or the processes underlying the decisions violate a contractual or statutory right of the employee. For example, if your disciplinary process is tainted by improper and illegal bias on the basis of protected class, the court will not disregard that simply because a disciplinary procedure was followed. Employers should make sure not only that they are following their internal disciplinary procedures but that procedures are fair and impartial and that the decisions stemming from those procedures do not violate the contractual or statutory rights of employees.