PHILADELPHIA – A panel of appellate judges has decided to uphold a trial court’s decision of summary judgment in a breach of contract and wrongful termination case brought by a former medical college professor.
On Nov. 30, judges Kent A. Jordan, Joseph A. Greenaway Jr. and Marjorie O. Rendell ruled to affirm the judgment of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, in dismissing the case of plaintiff Dr. Catherine Beckwith and awarding summary judgment to Penn State University.
Rendell authored the court’s opinion in this case.
Beckwith brought suit against Penn State alleging it “breached a six-year employment agreement and violated her right to procedural and substantive due process” when it terminated her after little more than two years of employment.
The magistrate judge recommended granting summary judgment in favor of Penn State on all three counts. The District Court adopted the magistrate judge’s report over Beckwith’s objections and entered summary judgment for Penn State, from which Beckwith appealed.
Beckwith began employment as an Associate Professor, a tenure-track faculty position in the Department of Comparative Medicine, on May 1, 2007. Her offer letter stated that the department expected her to devote 75 percent of her effort to research and the remaining 25 percent between teaching and administrative activities, according to Rendell.
Beckwith’s position was described as “tenure-eligible," with tenure being “a six-year process” – although granting of earlier tenure was possible, based on her performance.
After disputes with supervisors over her progress and allocation of professional duties in the intervening years, Beckwith was informed in April 2009 that she would be terminated on June 30, 2010.
Beckwith challenged her review process by filing a petition with Penn State’s Faculty Senate Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities (CFRR), to which her dossier was recirculated.
However, the decisions at all levels of tenure review remained unchanged, and Beckwith was notified in January 2010 that she would be terminated on June 30, 2011.
Beckwith subsequently filed two unsuccessful petitions with the CFRR challenging this second review, leading her to take her case to the District Court – who granted summary judgment to Penn State. This led Beckwith to appeal to the Third Circuit.
First, Beckwith believed Penn State did not afford her legitimate due process during her termination.
“We find that Beckwith received adequate pre- and post-termination process in this case. Before her termination, Beckwith had notice of the contents of her dossier, the file that contained the materials on which her peer reviewers would base their decisions,” Rendell said.
Rendell said Beckwith was afforded adequate opportunities to prove her case during her tenure review, thereby satisfying the requirements for due process.
Further, Beckwith claimed Penn State breached its employment agreement with her by terminating her after a little more than two years.
“In Pennsylvania, there is a presumption of at-will employment. This presumption can be overcome if, among other things, the plaintiff can show that there was an express contract between the parties for a definite duration or an explicit statement that an employee can only be terminated “for cause,” Rendell said.
“The District Court found that Beckwith failed to show the existence of any agreement of definite duration, and even if she did, that Beckwith could not show Penn State breached this agreement. We agree,” Rendell added.
Rendell said Beckwith’s “offer letter nor any other document incorporated by reference established a term of years for the agreement”; it only noted Beckwith would be hired in a “tenure-eligible” position, which would take six years.
Therefore, Rendell said Beckwith did not show Penn State breached its employment agreement with her.
“For the reasons set forth above, we will affirm the District Court’s order granting summary judgment to Penn State,” Rendell said.
The plaintiff is represented by Gregory E. Monskie in Lancaster.
The defendant is represented by Nancy Conrad of White & Williams, in Center Valley.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-1392
U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania case 4:12-cv-00108
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at firstname.lastname@example.org