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Sending Course Schedule to Faculty Member May Create an Employment Contract

On October 30, the 7th Circuit released Meade v. Moraine Valley Community College, which included an interesting decision affecting schools and universities.  The Court held that a semester’s course schedule sent to an adjunct faculty member actually created an employment contract and rebutted the typical at-will employment agreement between employers and their employees.  This means that teachers and professors could claim a property right in each semester of their employment and would therefore be owed a hearing before termination.

In Meade, Robin Meade was an adjunct faculty member at Moraine Valley Community College who published a letter critiquing Moraine Valley’s treatment of adjuncts.  In response to Meade’s published letter, Moraine Valley sent her a letter of termination just two days later.  Two weeks after her termination, Meade received a follow-up email informing her that any further presence on campus would be considered criminal trespass.  Meade responded by filing suit against Moraine Valley.

On appeal from the District Court’s ruling, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of Meade.  The Court held that Moraine Valley violated Meade’s right to due process.  The college should not have fired Meade without providing her with notice and an opportunity to contest her termination.  In at-will employment states, such as Illinois and Indiana, this due process is not typically owed unless the employee can demonstrate a property right to their employment.  This is often done through express contracts or implied by terms in an employment manual limiting the employer’s ability to fire an employee without cause.

The 7th Circuit went even further when seeking out an implied contract between Meade and Moraine Valley.  The Court concluded that since her employment agreement stated the listing of courses and dates for the semester she would be teaching, it had created a defined term of employment and a contract.  The course schedule on Meade’s employment agreement provided specific starting and ending dates and told her what she would be paid for teaching during that term.  This language was held to be sufficient to create an expectation of employment during a specified time, and therefore a property interest.  Due to this reasoning, Meade was owed notice and a meaningful hearing before being terminated.

This decision is important for school corporations, colleges, and universities to consider when creating employment agreements with teachers and faculty.  It may be typical practice to publish course schedules outlining the expectations of employees, which may in turn create an implied contract for the duration of the semester.  This decision also did not take into account any Collective Bargaining Agreement or other factors which may further affect employment relationships.  To work through all possible factors, it is important for employers to speak with their legal counsel or attorney when anticipating possible termination of a staff member.

For additional information, please contact any member of the KDDK education law or labor and employment law practice teams or call (812) 423-3183.