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Faghri v. University of Connecticut

September 17, 2010; as amended October 7, 2010

AMIR FAGHRI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF CONNECTICUT, PHILIP AUSTIN, AND PETER NICHOLLS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANTS.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Defendants Philip Austin and Peter Nicholls, the President and Provost of the University of Connecticut respectively, appeal from the interlocutory order of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut (Bryant, J.) denying their motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity on Plaintiff's claims that Defendants unconstitutionally retaliated against him for his exercise of his right to free speech in violation of the First Amendment and violated his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment when they removed him from his position as dean. The Court of Appeals (Leval, J.) concludes that Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. The judgment of the district court is REVERSED, and the case remanded to the district court with instructions to enter judgment for the Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leval, Circuit Judge

Argued: December 8, 2009

Before: LEVAL and HALL, Circuit Judges, and MURTHA, District Judge.*fn1

Defendants, Philip Austin and Peter Nicholls, the President and Provost of the University of Connecticut respectively, appeal from the interlocutory ruling of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut (Bryant, J.) denying their motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff, Amir Faghri, alleges that Defendants removed him from his position as dean of the School of Engineering in retaliation for his exercise of his right to free speech in violation of the First Amendment and without according him the procedural rights guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity, contending that, without regard to any dispute as to facts, their actions did not violate any clearly established constitutional right of Plaintiff. We agree and accordingly reverse the judgment of the district court.

BACKGROUND

In May of 1998, the University of Connecticut appointed Amir Faghri to a term of five years as dean of the School of Engineering. His letter of appointment stated that he was "a management employee," and "serve[d] at the pleasure of the Chancellor." (The position of Chancellor has since been replaced by the position of Provost). The letter noted that, as dean, Faghri would have a "leadership role" and must "blend that administrative function with the mandates of the strategic plan."

Five years later, the university appointed Faghri to a second term as dean. This time, his reappointment letter, dated May 21, 2003, did not include a "serve at the pleasure of" clause. Faghri claims that when he and the provost negotiated over his reappointment as dean, he insisted that the letter not contain such a clause. In September of 2004, Provost Fred Maryanski appointed Faghri also to a chaired professorship.

During his second term as dean, Faghri was an outspoken critic of many university policies. His complaint highlights his criticism of six such policies. First, in February 2005, after serving as a member of a university delegation to Dubai to explore the possibility of establishing a regional campus there, he began speaking out against the proposed campus in emails and at university meetings. In those communications, he argued that the Dubai government was manipulating the university and that the project was "inappropriate."

Second, beginning in October 2005, in university meetings and an email sent to the other deans, he opposed a university plan to close the School of Allied Health, the School of Family Studies, and the College of Continuing Education. Nicholls, who was then the university provost, claims that in one such meeting Faghri verbally attacked him, saying, "I don't know how any of us can trust you again." Faghri made similar complaints in his email to the deans, in which he accused those supporting the plan of being "either dishonest or blinded by their own self interests."

Third, during deans' meetings in 2005 and 2006 he called for an investigation into the university's alleged mismanagement of construction funds related to an initiative entitled "UConn 2000." He expressed these concerns in at least four meetings.

Fourth, in 2006, he sent a letter to a state senator, opposing funding, which the university supported, for the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology ("CCAT"), an independent entity established to research fuel cell technology. Faghri's letter stated that "the leadership of the School of Engineering believes the Bill [funding CCAT] is fatally flawed for a number of reasons" including that CCAT "lacks the experience, personnel, facilities or the credibility" to perform the funded activities. Austin also heard that Faghri made similar comments to the chief-of-staff of a local congressman,which Nicholls believed would jeopardize future funding opportunities for the university.

Fifth, beginning in December 2005, in emails, meetings, and conversations, Faghri criticized the university's handling of a federal audit, which resulted in a fine based on the billing practices at the School of Engineering. He argued that the university had not defended itself properly and should not pay the agreed-upon fine. He also defended the role of the School of Engineering, claiming that it was being "singled out" for blame.

Finally, beginning in 2004 Faghri complained, in university meetings and emails to various administrators and faculty members, about inadequate university support for faculty researchers. He complained that this lack of support was causing the university to lose top researchers to other ...


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