Eleventh Circuit Rejects 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Due Process Challenge to Pre-Termination Hearings of a Tenured Professor at Georgia Tech

In Laskar v. Peterson, 771 F.3d 1291 (11th Cir. 2014), the Eleventh Circuit held that a tenured professor was provided adequate procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment despite not having a chance to present his case directly before the president of the terminating institution.

Joy Laskar, Ph.D is an electrical engineer who was a tenured professor at Georgia Tech and former director of the Georgia Electronic Design Center (GEDC). In May 2010, Laskar was sent a letter notifying him of the findings of an internal audit that suggested he misappropriated funds from the GEDC to profit a business in which he was part owner. The letter suspended him without pay immediately, with a subsequent letter informing Laskar that Georgia Tech would be instituting termination proceedings. Each of the required procedures were followed according to the Georgia Tech Faculty Handbook, as well as the Board of Regents Policy Manual, including a discussion between Laskar and the appropriate administrative officer, an informal inquiry by the Faculty Status and Grievance Committee (FSGC)—which voted to terminate Laskar, and finally, a letter of warning that notified him of the proposed termination and allowed Laskar to request a formal statement of the charges and a formal hearing—both of which he did.

The procedural history for Laskar’s case is extensive. Laskar’s case was heard before a four-person Faculty Hearing Committee that, after twelve hours of presenting evidence and witness testimony from both sides, deliberated for eight hours and unanimously voted that Laskar was guilty of three out of the five charges levied against him and that he should be terminated. This vote was recorded in a final report and given to president Peterson who ultimately determined Laskar should be terminated. It was over this lack of direct oversight by Peterson that Laskar first appealed the decision to the Board of Regents, who subsequently agreed with the president. Laskar then appealed the Board of Regents decision to the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia.

The Superior Court found that it lacked jurisdiction to decide the dispute in light of the administrative nature of the proceedings, and the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed, noting that Laskar was not without judicial recourse if he were to bring a claim for violation of procedural due process. Laskar then instituted a § 1983 claim in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. The District Court dismissed Laskar’s appeal for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Laskar appealed.

On appeal, Laskar averred that his hearing before the Faculty Hearing Committee, instead of Peterson himself, did not afford him a “meaningful opportunity to be heard” and that without Peterson present, the hearing was “devoid of meaning.” 771 F.3d at 1296. Laskar relied heavily on Supreme Court precedent in Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, which he claimed required face to face representation because of the phrase: “to invoke the discretion of the decisionmaker.” See Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 543 (1985). However, the Court found that in context, “the Supreme Court was simply stating that the time to be heard is prior to the adverse employment action.” Laskar, 771 F.3d at 1298. The Court went on to state “[t]hat there exists case law within this Circuit and in other circuits where a pretermination hearing was held before a final decisionmaker does not require the conclusion that the procedures applied here failed to comport with due process.” Id. The Court concluded that Laskar was provided the “essential requirements of due process”: notice of the charges against him and a pre-termination opportunity to respond. See Loudermill, 470 U.S. at 546, 105 S.Ct. at 1495.

The appellees raised several arguments unsuccessfully on appeal: 1) the District Court lacked jurisdiction to hear Laskar’s claim under the theory of res judicata, 2) Laskar did not avail himself of the available state remedies before instituting his § 1983 action and 3) sovereign immunity barred the claim. The court did not address the issue of sovereign immunity since Laskar’s claim was to be dismissed for failure to state a claim. The Court stated that both of the remaining claims by the appellees failed because res judicata can only be invoked if there has been a decision on the merits, and the District Court properly found the Superior Court’s dismissal was not on the merits. The Court also found that Laskar adequately availed himself of state remedies before instating the § 1983 action.

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