New job assignments given to an employee often do not result in that employee having any rights to sue the employer. This point was illustrated in the New Hampshire Supreme Court decision of Mara Sabinson v. Trustees of Dartmouth College.
In February 2008, I wrote about Mara Sabinson’s journey through the federal court system attempting to prove employment discrimination against Dartmouth College. Fortunately for Dartmouth College, the state and federal employment laws prohibit adverse employment actions being taken against employees based upon their protected class yet do not provide protection merely because the employee happens to be a part of a protected class. Sabinson had filed suit against Dartmouth College in federal court alleging discrimination based upon her age, gender and religion, retaliation, breach of contract, wrongful discharge and demotion. The evidence revealed that while Sabinson was over 40, a female and Jewish, it was her bad behavior that was the cause of any adverse action taken against her, not any of those protected classes. The federal court dismissed the wrongful discharge claim and granted Dartmouth’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the remaining claims other than the contract claim, which it declined to consider leaving that claim for the state courts. Sabinson thereafter proceeded forward with a breach of contract claim in the state court against Dartmouth, and the state Superior Court granted summary judgment in favor of Dartmouth.
In part, Sabinson relied upon an agreement that stated that disciplinary actions against faculty members for unsatisfactory service may be effected by the College only for adequate cause. Under the agreement, such disciplinary actions include termination of employment, involuntary leave from the College duties, “or any other major changes in conditions of employment that diverge from the ordinary agreements.” In this case, Sabinson did not like the idea of teaching different courses and stated that it was “a major change” thereby requiring Dartmouth to have adequate cause for such actions. Sabinson was neither terminated nor placed on involuntary leave but assigned to teach writing courses. On June 30, the New Hampshire Supreme Court found that as a matter of law the reassignment was not “a major change”. Sabinson further argued that she had a specific “assignment (to teach certain courses) as of the beginning of the academic year of July 1, 2005” but Dartmouth breached that agreement when, following her EEOC complaint, she was assigned to three first year writing courses. The Court noted, among other things, that Sabinson cited no authority for the proposition that a tenured professor has a contractual right to teach specific courses. The Court cited a legal decision out of Maryland that stated that faculty members must adapt their schedules to conform to the needs of the department and the capabilities of other faculty members as no faculty member has a vested right in any course.
In conclusion, the New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed with the Superior Court’s Summary Judgment on the contract claim, which should hopefully finally end Sabison’s legal claims against Dartmouth College.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].