Posted May 15, 2020. To settle a pandemic-related financial crisis at UMass Dartmouth, law faculty are not receiving research compensation in summer 2020. I will be away from my desk, May 16 to August 15. Blog posts will be sparse, and I will not receive email. On the upside, summer 🌞! If you need to reach me, please send a message through the faculty assistants’ office (Ms. Cain and Ms. Rittenhouse). Stay thirsty.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Why do law profs lose their employment suits? Because most plaintiffs lose

An article about litigious law profs in the Albany Law Review by Nova Southeastern Law Professor Robert Jarvis is getting a lot of play in legal academic circles.  Jarvis did an astonishingly thorough and first-of-its-kind survey of cases in which law professors are plaintiffs suing over employment matters.  Here's how the ABA Journal (May 2018, at 15) summarized it:

Law professors often lose when they sue over employment matters such as not getting hired, tenure denials or pay disputes, according to an article by Robert Jarvis in the latest issue of the Albany Law Review. Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad College of Law, wrote that three issues are at the root of these lawsuits: dissatisfaction with, and professional jealousy of, faculty colleagues; disagreements with, and distrust of, administrators; and feeling that others are receiving better, and undeserved, treatment. In what appears to be the first study of its kind, Jarvis also found that law professor suits are far more common in recent years.
Jarvis's work is quality, but commenters have read too much into his observations.  Eager to dine on the raw flesh of irony, stories such as Above the Law's have ripped lines from Jarvis, such as "many law professors are guilty of a shocking level of thin-skinnedness," to over-explain law profs' poor record in litigation.  First, Jarvis offered that as an observation, not an explanation.  Second, "many" does not mean even "most."  It's surely true of "many," but that hardly explains the litigation record.

Jarvis himself observed, "law professors generally do a poor job assessing their chances, for they lose much more often than they win."  That's just wrong--a non sequitur.  Any plaintiff in a civil action could be said to have assessed the situation poorly, simply because defendants usually win civil actions.  Yet plaintiffs keep suing.  So there must be other reasons to sue.  One reason to sue is that a plaintiff might hope to win a settlement, because a defendant wishes to avoid a public row or litigation transaction costs.  Another reason to sue is that a plaintiff has nothing to lose.  A lawsuit in a hopeless situation might yet stake out a public defense of integrity and leave a record to protect future employment prospects.

Importantly, whether a plaintiff wins in litigation or seeks to accomplish these ancillary aims says nothing definitive as to whether plaintiff was actually wronged.  Plenty of plaintiffs are wronged and lose.  Evidence controlled by defendants often cannot be marshaled sufficiently to make the plaintiff's case to the requisite standard.  Courts broadly defer to universities in the construction of tenure contracts, even though the universities draft them and they're not negotiable.  And all kinds of legal standards, such as sovereign immunity, and sometimes tort reforms, such as anti-SLAPP laws, protect defendants prophylactically. 

So why do law professors lose their cases?  Because all plaintiffs usually lose, for all sorts of reasons, some legitimate, some not.  In academics, universities dominate the employment bargain in a supply-rich market, so law professors, like anyone else, start from a disadvantage.  And law professors might be expected to turn up as plaintiffs more often than the average employee because the law professor correctly calculates that she or he has a better-than-average chance of beating the odds.

Full disclosure, my own once upon a case is mentioned, fairly and correctly, in a footnote in Jarvis's article, on the subject of reputational injury.  When I sued, I was most definitely accused of being thin-skinned--by people who had no idea what it was like to see one's career and livelihood pouring down the drain, and family suffering by association, upon defamatory falsehoods that spread like wildfire.  I could have not sued.  One colleague advised me to just wait five years and let the false allegations fade from memory.  Even if they would have faded, a dubious proposition, waiting would have meant career stasis for at least five years, maybe forever.

And had I not sued, despite the odds, and had the lawsuit as leverage, I never would have received the public letter of exoneration that I did.  My current employer asked to see that letter before I started a new job.  I don't know whether I count as a loss in Jarvis's statistics.  My lawsuit didn't win any money, and I dismissed it with prejudice.  But I don't think I lost.

Anyway, why law profs lose their cases is not what worries me the most about Jarvis's findings.  I'm far more concerned about his observation that lawsuits in legal academics are on the uptick.  This I believe to be the result of worsening employment conditions and the frustration of law faculty--me included--whom, in the troubled legal education market, universities increasingly expect to be vocational trainers and obedient serfs, rather than erudite educators and champions of intellectual freedom.  In examining the unusual incidence of law professor-employee plaintiffs, Jarvis is seeing just the tip of a nasty iceberg.

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