University of Pittsburgh wins appeal to cut tenured professor's salary after poor reviews

By Takesha Thomas | Mar 12, 2019

PHILADELPHIA — An appeals court has reversed a lower court ruling that restored the salary of a University of Pittsburgh professor after his pay was cut following poor annual reviews.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Feb. 14 reversed the lower court ruling that granted Jerome McKinney's summary judgment against the university. The university had reduced the tenured professor's salary by 20 percent after he received several poor annual reviews. 

McKinney called that a violation of the Due Process Clause, and he was granted summary judgment. 

However, on appeal, the court has found that McKinney "failed to establish any explicit understanding — much less a 'mutually explicit understanding' — that his salary was protected against reduction."

The three-judge panel ruled in part, "His argument, after all, is that the phrase 'increase ... for maintenance of real salary' assumes — and therefore implicitly guarantees — the baseline of the prior year’s salary. But while such an assumption about the meaning of 'increase' may support a 'unilateral expectation,' about the baseline salary, it does not protect against the reduction of salary for purposes of the Due Process Clause."

Under university policy, “[e]ach faculty or staff member performing satisfactorily will receive a percentage increase of the size determined for that year for maintenance of real salary, i.e., a salary increase to account for inflation." However, the policy does not have any provisions included regarding salary decreases.

McKinney was hired at the university in 1970 and was granted tenure in 1974, according to court papers. After he was told in 2013 that his salary would be decreased by 20 percent, he filed a complaint in federal court alleging that the university "unconstitutionally deprived him of his property interest in the entirety of his base salary."

The courts found that McKinney indeed had a property interest in his full salary and that the university deprived him of that interest without due process. The university in turn filed an appeal.

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