University of Iowa President Sally Mason did not violate the rights of the school’s top lawyer when she fired him and criticized his performance in 2008, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt on Wednesday threw out former general counsel Marc Mills’ claims that he was improperly fired after an independent investigation incorrectly blamed him for mishandling a high-profile sexual assault case involving football players.
Pratt found that Mason could fire Mills, a university vice president, because he was an at-will employee who had few job protections.
He rejected Mills’ claim that he had a contract for the job under an agreement with former Iowa President David Skorton, who wrote that it was his intention for Mills to have a five-year term when hired in 2005. The same letter made clear Mills had no guaranteed term and was serving at the discretion of the president, Pratt said.
Even if he wasn’t an at-will employee, Mason notified Mills of the reasons for his pending termination and considered his rebuttal, which was enough to satisfy Mills’ due process rights, Pratt found. Mason’s public statements that she was shocked and angry with Mills’ performance and no longer trusted him were not “sufficiently stigmatizing” to damage his reputation and require a formal hearing to give him a chance to defend himself, Pratt found.
“The university is pleased with the ruling because it supports its stance on this matter,” university spokesman Tom Moore said Thursday.
Mills said he was disappointed and “looking real hard at issues for appeal” in the 45-page ruling.
Pratt is expected to soon rule on Mills’ remaining claims against the Stolar Partnership, a St. Louis law firm hired by the Iowa Board of Regents to investigate the university’s response to a reported sexual assault in a university dorm room by two football players. Stolar’s appointment came amid a public outcry after the victim’s parents heavily criticized the university’s response, which eventually led both players to be convicted of misdemeanor assault.
Stolar’s report faulted Mills for improperly micromanaging the university’s investigation, having poor communication with the victim’s father and failing to turn over critical letters from the victim’s parents to an investigator. It found his actions were “consistent with a culture of lack of transparency.”
The report also faulted former dean of students Phil Jones, and Mason responded by firing both men. A judge earlier this year dismissed a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by Jones, who has appealed.
Mills claims the report’s conclusions were inaccurate because Mills did not lead or micromanage the investigation, did not have a conflict of interest and did not improperly withhold information. He alleges that Mason told him privately that he did nothing wrong before firing him.