Court of Appeals Affirms Summary Judgment for Defendant-University in Tenure Dispute With Plaintiff-Professor

Feb 23rd, 2013 | By Douglas C. Melcher | Category: Case Notes

On February 14, 2013, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Wright v. Howard University, No. 12-CV-110, slip op. (D.C. Feb. 14, 2013) in which it considered claims arising from a university’s denial of tenure to a professor. Id. at 1. By way of background, the plaintiff-professor alleged claims against the defendant-university for breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Id. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant-university on both claims. Id. at 1-2. It ruled that the breach of contract claim was time-barred by the applicable 3-year statute of limitations and that there was no genuine dispute of material fact regarding the claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Id. The plaintiff-professor appealed. Id. at 2.

On appeal, the plaintiff-professor argued that his breach of contract claim was not time-barred because, inter alia, the claim accrued when he was denied tenure (and thus incurred actual damages) as opposed to at an earlier time when the university allegedly violated the terms of the applicable contract by failing to conduct in-person, performance evaluations. Id. at 4-10. The Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiff-professor’s argument. It stated that “[a]n action for breach of contract generally accrues at the time of the breach.” Id. at 4. Furthermore, “[e]ven where monetary damages cannot be proved, a plaintiff who can establish a breach of contract is entitled to an award of nominal damages.” Id. at 7. “More specifically, it is settled in this jurisdiction that the absence of substantial or consequential damages does not prevent the limitations period from beginning to run on a claim for breach of contract.” Id. at 8 (internal quotation marks omitted).

The plaintiff-professor argued that his claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing should not have been dismissed because the evidence adequately established his right to relief. Id. at 10-17. The Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiff-professor’s argument. Id. It explained, inter alia, that “[e]very contract includes an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing” and that, “[t]o state a claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, a plaintiff must allege either bad faith or conduct that is arbitrary and capricious.” Id. at 11. It concluded that, “[a]lthough [the plaintiff-professor] did provide evidence of apparent inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the [tenure] review process, the picture he paint[ed], even viewed in the light most favorable to him, [wa]s one of inadvertence and forgetfulness, not bad faith or the degree of unfair conduct necessary to” show arbitrary and capricious conduct. Id. at 15. In reaching this conclusion, the Court of Appeals stated, inter alia, that “[a] claim that a university breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in making employment decisions involving faculty members implicates the principle of academic freedom” and that “the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing should not be interpreted so broadly that courts end up substituting their judgment improperly for the academic judgment of the school.” Id. at 11-12 (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted).

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment. To view the Court of Appeals’ opinion, click here.

Douglas C. Melcher is a civil litigator who has more than a decade of experience in the private practice of law. He has written numerous articles for D.C. Law Report and other publications, and is the author of the book Tort Claims and Defenses in the District of Columbia. For further information about Mr. Melcher, click here.