Retraction Watch

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Career derailed, ex-prof to sue Montana State for wrongful termination

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Ryan Jones. Credit: Kelly Gorham/MSU

A former assistant professor at Montana State University who was fired last year is planning to sue the school for defamation, wrongful termination, and violation of due process.

Ryan Jones, a microbiologist, was forced to leave his tenure-track position — which was technically a one-year contract, so could be terminated before he had the opportunity to apply for tenure. The case highlights the insecurity of non-tenured academic jobs, an issue the planned suit is tackling head on. In addition to monetary damages, the lawsuit seeks to void all one-year contracts at Montana State, which can be terminated for any reason — a system that exists elsewhere in academia.

Jones told Retraction Watch that he believes he was forced out based on what he alleges are cooked-up charges of research misconduct — specifically, he brought back insect samples from the Amazon but didn’t fill out a permit:

That is what the alleged misconduct was, a single page form was not filled out.

The dead and sterilized insects needed to have a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that oversees these types of samples.

But MSU isn’t providing an official explanation for Jones’s termination. As first reported by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the university’s position is:

assistant professors like Jones, who don’t yet have tenure, are hired on one-year contracts. The university has the right, [a spokesperson] said, to “non-renew” any of those contracts — without having to give any reason.

Whether Jones can prove that a research misconduct allegation ultimately led to his dismissal will be critical to the viability of his case, attorney Paul Thaler of Cohen Seglias, who has represented scientists accused of misconduct, told Retraction Watch:

This will be cause for great focus. If [Jones was fired for an alleged misconduct], then possibly there’s validity to his claim and he could prevail, but it’s not a slam dunk on either side.

Jones told us he has had a rough time since being let go on June 1 of last year.

The last year has been the worst of my life. I’ve spent 10 years preparing for this career and to have it just end? I’m bewildered as to why. It’s been infuriating and very stressful.

He’s seeking money to cover lost future earnings from what he thought would be a tenured position. Jones’ attorney, Brian Gallik of Bozeman-based Gallik, Bremer & Molloy, told Retraction Watch:

He started down a path of employment that had more job security than many at MSU. He was doing what needed to be done [to get tenure] and he was doing it well.

But Gallik told Retraction Watch there’s also a big-picture element to the lawsuit: bringing down MSU’s one-year contracts and, along with them, the ability to “non-renew” employees without cause. According to a complaint submitted to a state agency (a prerequisite to filing claims against the state of Montana), Jones’ planned suit asks for “A declaratory judgement that the University’s one-year contracts and probationary policies are against public policy and therefore void.” Gallik told us:

I’ve represented a number of individuals at Montana State on one-year contracts that had the rug pulled out from underneath them without any justifiable reason. If you’re going to get rid of them, you better give a damn good reason and follow your own policies and procedures, not just rely on these flimsy one-year contracts.

Jones found out he no longer had a job at MSU just a few days after returning from a teaching trip to the Peruvian Amazon. During a previous trip three months earlier, part of a research expedition funded by the National Geographic Society, Jones had sent back those insect samples with a graduate student. Not until the samples had already been shipped did he find out that the MSU biosafety committee hadn’t finalized approval of his plan to study the microbes that had once lived inside the samples. The committee wasn’t pleased — it demanded he undergo further online and in-person biosafety training and forbade him from conducting research on the samples until he obtained the necessary USDA permit. He told us he thought he complied with their instructions, and on May 12, he returned to the Amazon for the teaching trip (unrelated to the prior expedition, he told us). According to the complaint, Jones received the USDA permit he’d been waiting for on May 16.

On the day he was let go, Jones attended a meeting in the office of MSU vice president Charles Boyer, where Boyer handed him the letter announcing his termination. According to the complaint, Boyer said what the letter didn’t — that the dismissal was “in response to [Jones’s] interactions with the Biosafety Committee.” We reached out to Boyer for his version of this encounter, but were told by an MSU employee that he was out of the country for several weeks.

We also reached out to MSU legal counsel Kellie Peterson for comment. An MSU spokesperson answered that inquiry and told Retraction Watch it would be unable to comment on pending litigation.

Thaler told Retraction Watch that Jones needed to draw a direct line between the insect sample issues and being let go, especially if MSU asks the court to dismiss the case, as Thaler expects it will. If MSU thought Jones had committed misconduct, the “procedural requirement is that you go through the misconduct process,” Thaler said:

If [Jones] hadn’t connected [the firing and the biosafety committee issue] at all, it would probably be kicked out. At least he’s alleged there’s a connection between the two…They shouldn’t be terminating scientists during the course of a misconduct allegation.

Another attorney who has represented scientists accused of misconduct — Richard Goldstein of Meyer, Connolly, Simons & Keuthen — questioned how much protection Ryan could expect:

State university employees normally have more job protection than people who work at private institutions; however [Jones’s] effort to steer the case into the legal framework for research misconduct would not prevent him from being fired for other alleged deficiencies in his academic performance.

Thaler pointed out that Jones’s case is what’s called a Section 1983 case. It’s named for a federal law dating back to the post-Civil War Reconstruction era that enables state employees to sue for constitutional violations, including due process. Other non-tenured faculty have brought Section 1983 suits, some dating back to the 1970s. Not all are successful: Last year, a judge dismissed a similar suit brought by a professor at North Texas University.

Still, Thaler said this case was worth keeping an eye on:

That type of contract and this type of claim have existed for a long time. This is not a new approach. The interesting wrinkle comes between the alleged connection [between the dismissal and the misconduct allegation].

That makes it a little bit different.

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Written by Andrew P. Han

June 15th, 2017 at 10:45 am

Comments
  • Zach June 15, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    How does one not know their permit hasn’t been issued? Was there no phone at the airport to call Montana and check first? Especially if you’re sending the samples with a graduate student who will be on the hook if someone at the airport finds you’ve got a vial labeled Zika or whatever. Sounds like there’s a lot more to this story that we’re not hearing, but to the extent that Montana needs cause that seems sufficient to me. General complaints about one year contracts might be worth arguing about but at some point you have personal responsibility for the contracts you choose to sign.

  • Paul Brookes June 15, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    The case here is really not about misconduct or allegations thereof, it’s simply a matter of employment law. The college employed him on a contract, and believed that under the terms of said contract they had the right to fire him without a reason. They fired him, that’s the end of it. Hundreds of people are let go in this manner every year (including some very close colleagues of mine).

    Now, there IS the minor issue of the college actually giving a reason in this case (which is more than they were obliged to do), but even then the claim of “cooked-up charges of research misconduct” doesn’t really wash, in my opinion. The college says the dismissal was “in response to [Jones’s] interactions with the Biosafety Committee”, and the record shows there was a problem relating to permits. It is not clear that anything the college has said here amounts to an allegation of research misconduct.

    So it seems the screw-up here by the college was to attempt to justify their actions. If they’d just said “you’re fired” and left it at that, they’d be legally free and clear under the terms of the contract. They chose to make it about something, and the employee interpreted that something as an allegation of misconduct. In the end this will come down to whether Jones can convince a judge that the statement is in-fact an allegation of misconduct. Maybe there’s more to be told, but I think that will be an up-hill battle based on the content revealed publicly so far.

  • MannyHM June 15, 2017 at 6:33 pm

    I believe in the due process. Without it, the higher ups can convert their offices into a dictatorship.

  • Regret June 15, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    I think it’s unlikely that this case will break any new ground – consider the fact that the attorney is based in Bozeman, Montana.

    • Small town wonder June 16, 2017 at 10:09 pm

      Hmm, while on the wrong side in evolution in the Scope trial (and also supported prohibition!) William Jennings Bryan was a fantastic attorney and lived in Lincoln Nebraska. Mary Bonauto, one of the keys lawyers in the Supreme Court arguments leading to legalization of same sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges), lives in Portland Maine. Clarence Earl Gideon, a poor man with multiple convictions from small Panama City Florida represented himself in his petition to the Supreme Court, leading to the decision that defendants have the right to legal representation in court. Small-town attorneys, and non-attorneys, can have impact.
      We see this bias in science too, those at smaller institutions outside the mainstream get overlooked in committees, grants, and papers.

  • Seth K June 16, 2017 at 10:41 am

    Merits of the case aside, I hope Prof. Mason and his sympathizers will eventually connect what’s happened to him with what happens to adjunct/contingent faculty at US (and increasingly UK) colleges/universities every single term/year. I don’t blame him for being angry and feeling like he’s been done wrong, but it certainly strikes a sour note that neither he nor anyone else involved in the situation doesn’t have a glimmer of how not-at-all-unique this is.

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