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Wigginton v. The University of Mississippi

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

April 1, 2019




         This cause comes before the court upon the individual defendants' Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and, Alternatively, for New Trial and to Alter and Amend Judgment. Upon due consideration of the motion, response, exhibits, and applicable authority, the court is ready to rule.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The plaintiff, Dr. Michael Wigginton, filed this lawsuit against the University of Mississippi and named administrators following the denial of Wigginton's tenure and promotion application and his subsequent termination from the University. A five-day jury trial was held wherein witness testimony and evidentiary documents were presented. The court submitted two of Dr. Wigginton's original claims to the jury - an age discrimination claim and a substantive due process claim. The jury found in favor of the University on the age discrimination claim and for Dr. Wigginton against the individual defendants on the due process claim, specifically finding that each individual defendant's decision to deny Dr. Wigginton's tenure and promotion application was arbitrary and capricious and “literally irrational.” The jury found the defendants liable to Dr. Wigginton for $18, 000 in lost wages and $200, 000 in past and future pain and suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life.

         Dr. Wigginton was hired in 2008 as an assistant professor in a tenure-track position in the University's Department of Legal Studies. Neither his employment agreement nor subsequent agreements contained any language excluding the incorporation of external documents, and the parties agreed that the tenure and promotion review process was governed by the University, School of Applied Sciences, and Department Guidelines. The guidelines from the School and Department were designed to supplement the University Guidelines and provide more specific guidance regarding the criteria to be used to evaluate a professor's application for tenure and promotion. Under the University Guidelines, tenure applicants are evaluated on the quality of their research and scholarly activity, teaching, and service. All applicants are required to assemble a dossier summarizing his or her relevant activity and work product demonstrating satisfaction of these three factors.

         The University Guidelines outline the procedure required of all tenure-track professors which begins with a five-year probationary period prior to tenure eligibility. The guidelines provide:

Each candidate must serve a probationary period of five years of continuous or accumulated full-time employment at The University of Mississippi in a tenure-track professorial position….The sixth year shall be the year of formal review….A person who is not awarded tenure during his or her sixth year of service shall be given a terminal contract for his or her seventh year of service….Consideration for tenure shall be mandatory.

         Once a professor becomes eligible for tenure and promotion, he or she is to be notified in writing by May 15 of that year and is to meet with the chair of the department no later than July 1 of that year to discuss the submission of the dossier. The applicant also provides the chair with a list of five external reviewers from which the chair is to select three as well as two external reviewers from the chair's own list. The applicant is to submit the dossier no later than September 1 of that year.

         Upon submission of the applicant's dossier, the tenured and associate professors of the department meet and vote as to whether the applicant should be granted tenure and promotion. This vote is provided to the appropriate department chair who reviews the tenure application and makes a recommendation to the appropriate school dean. The school dean also receives a recommendation from a separate advisory committee. The school dean reviews the application and makes a recommendation to the graduate school dean who in turn makes a recommendation to the provost.

         The Tenure and Promotion Review Committee reviews the application to ensure that the process has been properly conducted and submits its findings to the provost. The provost then makes his recommendation. In the event of a negative recommendation from the provost, the applicant has five days to appeal and request a hearing from the Tenure and Promotion Appeals Committee, which will further assess whether the negative recommendations were based on impermissible grounds, including being arbitrary and capricious. Following a formal hearing, the Appeals Committee's findings are sent to the Chancellor, who makes the final recommendation to the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning (“IHL Board”). The IHL Board makes the ultimate decision to award tenure.

         The testimony and evidence produced at trial showed that Dr. Wigginton complied with this process, timely preparing and submitting a dossier which summarized his relevant teaching, service, and scholarly activity to demonstrate why he was entitled to tenure and promotion. Dr. Wigginton's dossier included five years of glowing reviews from his superiors which, he asserts, confirmed that he had met and exceeded the requirements necessary for an award of tenure and promotion.

         The tenured members of the Department of Legal Studies voted five to two in favor of a grant of tenure and four to two in favor of promotion.[1] Despite the faculty vote in favor of Dr. Wigginton, Defendant Eric Lambert, Chair of the Department of Legal Studies, recommended against granting tenure and promotion. His recommendation was considered by the Dean's Committee, which voted three to two in favor of tenure and promotion. Like Lambert, Defendant Velmer Burton, Dean of the School of Applied Sciences, who is no longer employed by the University, recommended, against the favorable recommendations of the faculty and committee, that Dr. Wigginton should not receive tenure. Defendant John Kiss, Dean of the Graduate School, followed suit and likewise recommended against the grant of tenure and promotion.

         Dr. Wigginton's application was then reviewed by the Tenure and Promotion Review Committee, which questioned the recommendations of Defendants Lambert, Burton, and Kiss as to arbitrariness and capriciousness and issued a report making no official finding in this respect. Defendant Morris Stocks, the Provost, who is no longer in that position, followed the other defendants in recommending against a grant of tenure and promotion.

         Dr. Wigginton then filed a request for a hearing with the Tenure and Promotion Appeals Committee. In its report to the Chancellor dated April 17, 2014, the Appeals Committee noted that in reviewing the defendants' recommendations against tenure and promotion, it considered the following definition of “arbitrary and capricious”: that “an action [is arbitrary and capricious] if the agency entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, or offered an explanation for its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise.” Docket 172-15. The Committee then reported its findings as follows:

In this context, the Committee felt that the agency (the University) as represented by the two department chairs preceding Dr. Lambert during Dr. Wigginton's probationary period had provided annual evaluations indicating satisfactory or excellent progress towards tenure and promotion for the previous 5 years, leading Dr. Wigginton and, the Committee felt, any reasonable person to expect that they would be granted tenure and promotion. The Committee also found that the final selection of external reviewers was entirely within the University's control, and that the selection of a reviewer from Dr. Wigginton's dissertation committee, entirely at odds with university policy, was a University decision. As such, the Committee finds the negative recommendation on tenure and promotion to be arbitrary and capricious in that the University failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, namely that the candidate was led to believe by a series of supportive annual reviews that he was on track to be successful in tenure and promotion, and that the discounting of the external reviewer letters was inappropriate since the reviewers were selected through the University's own actions. The Committee recommends that Dr. Wigginton be given a written explanation of how the department's tenure and promotion guidelines are interpreted and that an extended probation period be given to him so that he can demonstrate his ability to meet those expectations.

Id. (Emphasis added). Disregarding the Tenure and Promotion Appeals Committee's finding that Dr. Wigginton's tenure and promotion review process had been performed in an arbitrary and capricious manner, Defendant Chancellor Dan Jones, who is no longer the Chancellor, followed suit with the other defendants and recommended against tenure and promotion to the IHL Board. Jones issued a letter on June 17, 2014, advising Dr. Wigginton that his employment would be terminated on May 10, 2015. Jones also denied Dr. Wigginton's request and the Committee's recommendation that Dr. Wigginton's probationary period be extended for a year.

         Dr. Wigginton subsequently brought the instant lawsuit alleging a number of claims, two of which were ultimately submitted to the jury after a five-day trial: an age discrimination claim and a substantive due process claim. The jury found for the University on the age discrimination claim but found that the individual defendants had acted arbitrarily and capriciously in denying tenure and terminating from the University and were liable for $18, 000 in lost wages and $200, 000 in past and future pain and suffering. The defendants now renew their motion for judgment as a matter of law notwithstanding the verdict of the jury and also ask for the alternative relief of a new trial or a vacating or reduction of the damages award.

         Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) allows a defendant to renew his motion for judgment as a matter of law following a verdict for the plaintiff. Judgment as a matter of law after the conclusion of trial should be granted when “a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have had a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for a party on that issue[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). “It goes without saying that the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.” Montano v. Orange County, Tex., 842 F.3d 865 (5th Cir. 2016). “Moreover, consistent with the role of the jury under the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution, it is more than well-established that all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the nonmovant, with the credibility of witnesses and weight of the evidence being within the sole province of the jury.” Id. The court “accord[s] great deference to the jury's verdict when evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence.” Baltazor v. Holmes, 162 F.3d 368, 373 (5th Cir. 1998). The verdict is reversed “only if the evidence points ‘so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of one party that the court believes that reasonable jurors could not arrive at any contrary conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Boeing v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 365, 374 (5th Cir. 1969)).

         A district court may grant a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) when such action is necessary “to prevent an injustice.” Seibert v. Jackson County, Miss., 851 F.3d 430, 438 (quoting United States v. Flores, 981 F.2d 231, 237 (5th Cir. 1993)). “The decision to grant or deny a motion for new trial is a matter for the trial court's discretion; [and the appellate court] will reverse its ruling only for an abuse of discretion.” Seibert, 851 F.3d at 438. “A trial court should not grant a new trial on evidentiary grounds unless the verdict is against the great weight of the evidence.” Id. “In other words, the movant must show ‘an absolute absence of evidence to support the jury's verdict.'” Id. (quoting Whitehead v. Food Max of Miss., Inc., 163 F.3d 265, 269 (5th Cir. 1998)).


         Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Substantive Due Process

         “The protections of the Due Process Clause, whether procedural or substantive, only apply to deprivations of constitutionally protected property or liberty interests.” Klingler v. Univ. of S. Miss., 612 Fed.Appx. 222, 227 (5th Cir. 2015). “Without such an interest, no right to due process accrues.” DePree v. Saunders, 588 F.3d 282, 289 (5th Cir. 2009). A successful claim for deprivation of substantive due process requires two showings in the context of public employment: (1) that the plaintiff possessed the aforementioned property interest or right and (2) that the public employer's depriving of that interest was arbitrary and capricious. Stark v. Univ. of S. Miss., 8 F.Supp.3d 825, 841 (S.D.Miss. 2014) (citing Lewis v. Univ. of Tex. Med. Branch at Galveston, 665 F.3d 625, 630 (5th Cir. 2011)).

         The Supreme Court has held that in order “to have a property interest in a benefit, a person clearly must have more than an abstract need or desire for it [or] . . . a unilateral expectation of it. He must, instead, have a legitimate claim of entitlement to it.” Bd. of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577 (1972). The Court has also held that a “person's interest in a benefit is a ‘property' interest for due process purposes if there are such rules or mutually explicit understandings that support his claim of entitlement to the benefit.” Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 601 (1972).

         The Supreme Court has acknowledged that an implied contract right precluding arbitrary state interference may qualify as a property interest protected by the Due Process Clause[2] but has also made clear that “[p]roperty interests. . . are created and their dimensions are defined by existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law . . . .” Roth, 408 U.S. at 577. The Fifth Circuit has held accordingly, stating that “[c]onstitutionally protected property interests are created and defined by understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law” or contract. Klingler, 612 Fed.Appx. at 227; Martin v. Mem. Hosp. at Gulfport, 130 F.3d 1143, 1147 (5th Cir. 1997).

         The Fifth Circuit has stated, “In general, we have recognized that a property interest is created where the public entity has acted to confer, or alternatively, has created conditions which infer, the existence of a property interest by abrogating its right to terminate an employee without cause.” Muncy v. City of Dallas, Tex., 335 F.3d 394, 398 (5th Cir. 2003). The court noted, “This abrogation may take the form of a statute, rule, handbook, or policy which limits the condition under which the employment may be terminated.” Id. (citing Henderson v. Sotelo, 761 F.2d 1093, 1096 (5th Cir. 1985)). “Ultimately, however, the question of whether a property interest exists is an ...

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