The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held that an adjunct professor’s letter criticizing her employer’s treatment of adjunct professors was protected speech and that the adjunct professor’s employment contract gave her a cognizable property interest in continued employment.
Meade v. Moraine Valley Community College, (October 30, 2014, Case No. 14-1217), highlights the limitations of the general public employee exception to the First Amendment and underscores the importance of carefully considering whether to discipline an employee after they have engaged in arguably protected speech. Moreover, the case unequivocally concludes that employees with defined term employment contracts have a cognizable property interest in continued employment; therefore they cannot be terminated mid-term without notice and an opportunity to be heard.
In this case, Robin Meade was an adjunct professor at Moraine Valley Community College and president of the union representing the college’s adjunct faculty. In her capacity as the union president, Meade sent a letter to the League for Innovation, accusing the college of treating adjunct faculty as “a disposable resource” and “a separate, lower class of people.” The letter argued that the college’s prohibition on adjunct professors working on an hourly basis prevented them from spending extra time tutoring students, which in turn led to high failure rates of students in developmental classes. Two days after sending this letter, Meade received a notice of job termination, which explicitly stated that she was being terminated as a result of the letter.
Meade sued the college, alleging that she was fired in retaliation for exercising her First Amendment rights, and that she was terminated without adequate procedural due process. The district court granted the college’s motion to dismiss, finding that the letter was not protected speech because it did not contain matters of public concern. The district court also found that despite Meade’s employment contract, she did not have a cognizable property interest in continued employment; therefore, she was owed no procedural due process.
The appellate court reversed the district court’s findings on both issues. Instead, the appellate court found that the letter contained “almost no content personal to Meade.” The letter was a matter of public concern, despite the fact that Meade was an adjunct professor, because it contained “multiple references to the difficulties facing all Moraine Valley’s adjuncts.” Moreover, Meade’s letter linked the treatment of adjuncts to student performance, which the court found to be a matter of public concern. Finding the letter to be protected speech, the appellate court remanded the case to the district court to determine whether the speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the retaliatory action, and whether the college can show that it would have taken the same action without the existence of the letter.
The appellate court also reversed the district court’s finding that Meade did not have a cognizable property interest in continued employment. Meade had an employment contract for the term of the semester, which noted the classes she would be teaching. While the employment contract did not require that Meade only be terminated for cause, it “otherwise evinced” a mutual understanding of continued employment because it contained course numbers and a defined period of employment. The appellate court noted that the district court “did not adequately take into account Illinois’s rule that employment with a fixed duration provides an exception” to the presumption of employment at-will.Because Meade had a cognizable property interest, her claim for a procedural due process violation could go forward in the district court.