Appellate Court Gives New Life to Professor’s First Amendment and Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

It is somewhat common for workers who have been fired to claim that their termination was a result of their employer retaliating against them for undesirable behavior. Proving such an accusation in court is another matter. Most states have “at-will” employment laws, which means employers can terminate a worker’s employment for no reason.

An employee who is not an at-will employee is considered to have a property interest in her employment. Under Illinois employment law, an employee can be seen as having a property interest in her employment if her employment contract provides “that termination will only be for cause or otherwise evince mutually explicit understandings of continued employment.”

In a recent legal dispute between Moraine Valley Community College and one of its former adjunct professors, the two parties disagreed as to whether the professor could be considered an at-will employee. The professor, Robin Meade, was also acting as the head of the Moraine Valley Adjunct Faculty Organization (MVAFO). The college had requested that Meade and other union leaders write to the League for Innovation in the Community College (LICC) to support Moraine Valley’s reapplication for the LICC board.

Instead of supporting the college, Meade alleegdly wrote a letter to the LICC that explained her reasons for not wanting to do so. Among these reasons, she accused the college of allegedly treating adjunct faculty as “a disposable resource” and “a separate, lower class of people.” Meade provided evidence which she said support this claim, citing the fact that the administration allocated more resources to full-time faculty and staff, and left adjuncts “to fend for themselves.” She also criticized the college for refusing to let adjuncts work on an hourly basis, as according to her that prevented them from spending extra time to tutor students.

She also claimed that the college underpaid adjuncts, denied them access to healthcare, and denied them certain classes without explanation. She further pointed out her claim that adjunct professors taught 60% of Moraine’s classes, which meant the success of the students’ success depends largely on its adjunct professors.

Two days after she sent the letter to the LICC, Meade received a letter of termination from the college. The letter specifically referred to Meade’s letter to the LICC, and claimed the letter was “replete with misrepresentations and falsehoods … irresponsible rhetoric,” and that it was “disruptive and not in the best interests of the College.” Rather than acting as a responsible advocate for her union, the letter accused Meade of conducting “a personal attack to falsely discredit” the college and undermine its relationship with the LICC.

A couple weeks later, Meade received an email from the chief of the college’s police force, informing her that her presence on the college campus would be considered criminal trespass. Meade responded by filing a lawsuit against the college.

Meade’s lawsuit alleges that the college’s termination of her employment was in retaliation for her exercising her right to Free Speech as granted under the First Amendment to the Constitution. She also alleges that her employment contract for the fall semester constituted a property interest, which the college violated when it fired her.

The college petitioned the court to dismiss Meade’s case because her letter to the LICC did not fall under protected speech because she was an at-will employee. The district court agreed and dismissed the case. Meade appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the district court’s decision.

The First Amendment is specific about the type of language it protects. Generally, courts tend to protect any language that relates to a matter of public concern, since it is in the best interests of the public to allow free discussion of such matters. The college argued that Meade’s letter was a personal attack, and therefore not a matter of public concern. The district court agreed, but the appellate court did not.

Contrary to the college’s accusations, Meade’s letter contained almost no content that was personal to herself. Instead, she emphasized that she was writing as the head of a union whose members were concerned about the way they were being treated. The letter also made several references to the difficulties faced by all of the college’s adjunct faculty, rather than just Meade.

Meade’s emphasis on the impact the college’s treatment of adjuncts has on student performance also puts her letter in the realm of public importance. The students attending Moraine Valley, as well as their family, no doubt have a vested interest in knowing if the college’s practices pose a threat to student performance.

The appellate court also reversed the decision to dismiss the case based on Meade’s position as an at-will employee. It pointed to her employment agreement, which included a listing of classes, along with dates, course numbers, and Meade’s pay for the semester. The appellate court decided that, because her employment contract specified dates, Meade had an alleged legitimate expectation of continued employment with the college. According to the appellate court, that legitimate expectation was all Meade needed to prove she had a property interest in her job.

Our Chicago defamation and slander attorneys concentrate in this area of the law. We have defended or prosecuted a number of defamation and libel cases, including cases representing a consumer sued by a large luxury used car dealer in federal court for hundreds of negative internet reviews and videos which resulted in substantial media coverage of the suit; one of Loyola University’s largest contributors when the head basketball coach sued him for libel after he was fired; and a lawyer who was falsely accused of committing fraud with the false allegation published to the Dean of the University of Illinois School of Law, where the lawyer attended law school and the President of the University of Illinois. One of our partners also participated in representing a high profile athlete against a well-known radio shock jock.

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