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Colo. SC: Former professor not entitled to reinstatement

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Sep 13, 2012



DENVER (Legal Newsline) - The Colorado Supreme Court this week rejected an appeal by a former University of Colorado professor seeking to get his job back.

In its ruling Monday, the Court upheld the decision of two lower courts, agreeing that Ward Churchill is not entitled to reinstatement or back pay.

Churchill, who was a tenured professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder from 1990 to 2007, sought review by the state's high court over claims he was wrongfully terminated by the university's Board of Regents.

Specifically, Churchill alleges that the Regents violated his constitutionally protected free speech rights by initiating an investigation into his academic integrity and by terminating his employment in retaliation for his publication of a controversial essay.

Churchill was fired in 2007 after being charged with plagiarism and academic misconduct.

According to the Court's decision, in January 2005 "public furor erupted" over an essay he wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Among other claims, his essay likened the civilians killed in the World Trade Center to Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi officer and convicted war criminal for his role as the primary planner of the Holocaust.

The university later investigated whether Churchill's essay was protected under the First Amendment. It was found that it was.

However, amid the investigation, some academics accused the professor of plagiarism and fraud in his writings. This led to his firing.

Soon after, Churchill filed a civil lawsuit against the university for wrongful termination, seeking both compensatory and equitable relief.

He won, but a trial court judge declined to reinstate him.

The state Court of Appeals affirmed that decision on the grounds that the regents' quasi-judicial actions were entitled to absolute immunity.

It also affirmed the lower court's dismissal of Churchill's claim for equitable remedies because it concluded that such remedies are not available in a Section 1983 action against quasi-judicial officials.

Based on that determination, the appeals court also affirmed the trial court's directed verdict in favor of the university on Churchill's bad faith investigation claim.

The state's high court affirmed, but on "slightly different grounds," it explained.

"First, we hold that the Regents' decision to terminate Churchill's employment was a quasi-judicial action functionally comparable to a judicial process. Hence, the Regents are entitled to absolute immunity concerning their decision to terminate Churchill," Chief Justice Michael L. Bender wrote.

"Second, we hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it ruled that Churchill was not entitled to the equitable remedies of reinstatement and front pay.

"Third, we hold that Churchill's bad faith investigation claim is barred by qualified immunity because the Regents' investigation into Churchill's academic record does not implicate a clearly established statutory or constitutional right or law."

Churchill told the Denver Post this week that he plans to appeal his firing to the nation's high court.

"We'll see if the U.S. Supreme Court is inclined to do any better," Churchill wrote in an e-mail to the newspaper.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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