September 8, 2010
U.S. District Court Finds in Favor of Cooley Law School
In an opinion and final judgment entered on September 7, 2010, Judge Robert J. Jonker of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in Grand Rapids ruled that the dismissal of former law professor Lynn Branham from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School faculty was proper. Following a hearing in September 2009, the 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 to affirm that removal by an overwhelming margin of more than 4 to 1, 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.
"The court's decision is total vindication for Cooley's removal of Branham," said James Robb, Cooley's general counsel. "The court has reaffirmed the long-established principle that institutions of higher education are entitled to manage their own affairs and that individual employees cannot pick and choose what assignments to accept without legal justification," he said. Branham had refused to teach what the 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 earlier that year agreed to teach. "Insubordination necessarily has real consequences in the workplace, even for tenured faculty," the court said in entering the judgment in favor of Cooley.
"The court's decisions also put to rest Branham's baseless claim that Cooley retaliated against her," said Robb, referring to Branham's previously dismissed allegations that she was fired for charging that a Cooley board member, Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Jane Markey, had improperly tried to influence the school's faculty to hire Markey's husband, Curt Benson, as a professor. "There never was a conflict of interest, never any improper influence over the faculty or administration, and absolutely no improper conduct by Judge Markey. In fact, it was Branham, not Judge Markey, who contacted the faculty about Judge Markey's understandable hope that Mr. Benson be hired," said Robb. "In addition, during the litigation, Branham admitted lying to Cooley's president and dean about a memorandum she wrote to the faculty about the Benson matter, despite a direct instruction from the chairman of the school's board of directors to respond to the president and dean's questions. The court thus quite correctly dismissed Branham's claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress," said Robb.
Regarding Mr. Benson, the faculty ultimately recommended to the school's dean that he be hired as a full-time faculty member, which occurred. After the required years of service on the faculty as a tenure-track professor and exceeding Cooley’s requirements for teaching, scholarship, and service, Professor Benson was promoted to Full Professor with Tenure, upon the recommendations of a faculty committee, the other tenured faculty and the associate dean of faculty.
In its judgment dismissing the lawsuit, the federal court also rejected Branham's claims for money damages and all other relief, ruling instead that the action of Cooley's faculty and board is final and binding. "There is no legal basis on which the Court could second guess the merits of that determination," the court said.
Cooley Law School is the largest law school in the nation. Founded in 1972, the private, non-profit law school operates J.D. programs across Michigan in Lansing, Auburn Hills, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. Today, Cooley Law School has over 14,000 graduates across the nation and worldwide and also offers joint degree and master of laws programs. Cooley offers enrollment three times a year; in January, May and September, including evening and weekend classes. Additional information about Cooley can be found at cooley.edu.