Stotter v. University of Texas at San Antonio: How a Minor Dispute About a Professorís Office and Laboratory Became a Federal Lawsuit
by Richard Fossey & Marc Cutright - April 16, 2008
ďDonít make a mountain out of a molehill,Ē is a warning we hear from time to time. In other words, donít make too much of a problem that really isnít all that serious. When university administrators become annoyed with a subordinate over some minor matter and are tempted to take strong, unilateral action, they should think about the Stotter case. It is almost always better for academicians to resolve minor disputes among themselves and not in the courts.
Stotter v. University of Texas at San Antonio began as nothing more than a minor academic dispute about the condition of a professors office and his laboratorya small matter in the day-to-day affairs of a major university. Nevertheless, the case went all the way to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. How did that happen? And what can we learn from this unfortunate lawsuit?
The Stotter Case: A University Gets Sued for Discarding a Professors Personal Property
As the Fifth Circuit tells the tale, officials at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) first became concerned about the condition of Dr. Philip Stotters office and laboratory in 1999 or perhaps even earlier. At one point, UTSA determined that Dr. Stotters office was an extreme fire hazard due to papers, trash, and boxes (p. 818). During 1999 and 2000, UTSA inspected Dr. Stotters laboratory several times.
Finally, in early January 2001, the chemistry departments supervisor sent Dr. Stotter a letter, telling him that he had violated the Universitys health and safety regulations, that he had been put on notice several times, and that the University intended to address the problems in his office on January 8. The supervisor also sent Stotter a second letter, telling him that UTSA Provost Guy Bailey was now involved.
On January 8, 2001, Dr. Stotters office remained uncleaned, and UTSA sent people to clean it. According to the Fifth Circuit opinion, Dr. Stotter tried to halt the cleanup effort and caused such a disturbance that UTSA police handcuffed him, took him to his car, and advised him to leave the premises (p. 818).
Up to this point, UTSA had been fairly restrained in its dealings with Dr. Stotter. Then on February 23, 2001more than two years after UTSA first expressed concern about Stotters laboratory, Provost Bailey sent Stotter a certified letter telling him that his lab had been closed and that UTSA would clean it on February 26. Baileys letter instructed Dr. Stotter to contact the chemistry department supervisor if he had any personal items he wished to retrieve, so that the supervisor could arrange for a police escort (p. 819).
Regrettably, Provost Baileys letter did not arrive until February 28. By that time, UTSA had already cleaned Dr. Stotters laboratory. According to Stotter, UTSA discarded some of his personal property that he had stored in the laboratory.
Later, the University started termination proceedings against Dr. Stotter, which he challenged by filing a grievance. After a four-day hearing before a panel of tenured UTSA professors, the grievance panel unanimously concluded that UTSA had no good reason for discharging Dr. Stotter. Nevertheless, the Universitys Board of Regents voted to terminate Dr. Stotters contract.
Dr. Stotter then sued UTSA, UTSA president Ricardo Romo, and Provost Bailey. Stotter claimed that President Romo had violated his First Amendment rights and his right to equal protection. As to UTSA and Provost Bailey, Stotter claimed that they had violated his right to procedural due process. UTSA filed a motion to dismiss all of Dr. Stotters claims. A federal trial court granted UTSAs motion and dismissed Dr. Stotters lawsuit.
But Dr. Stotter appealed, and the Fifth Circuit ruled in his favor on one critical constitutional issue. According to the appellate court, Stotter had stated a valid constitutional claim when he accused UTSA and the Provost of violating his right to due process when USTA disposed of his personal property while cleaning his laboratory without first giving him an opportunity to retrieve his personal belongs. Thus, the Fifth Circuit ruled, the trial court erred in dismissing Stotters due process claim. The Fifth Circuit sent that claim back to the trial court for further proceedings.
More chillingly, as far as Provost Bailey was concerned, the Fifth Circuit also ruled that a reasonable state official would know that disposing of Stotters property in such a manner was a constitutional violation (p. 823). Therefore, Provost Bailey was not immune from being sued personally.
What can the Stotter Case Teach Us?
Stotter v. University of Texas at San Antonio is a significant decision for college and university administrators. According to the Fifth Circuit, university employees may have constitutionally protected interests in personal property that they bring on campus. University officials might violate those constitutional rights if they unilaterally discard such property without giving the employee-owner an opportunity to retrieve it. What are the practical implications of this case?
First, colleges and universities should consider adopting policies that restrict employees from storing personal property on campus without the permission of their supervisors. Exceptions might be made for professors personal books and research materials or other items that pertain to a scholars work.
Second, in a dispute like the one that arose at UTSA, university authorities need to give recalcitrant employees a reasonable amount of time to rescue their personal property before the cleanup crew arrives. In the Stotter case, UTSA apparently did not calculate a reasonable time period for Stotter to come on campus and carry off his belongings from the chemistry laboratory.
Third, when communications break down between administrators and a faculty memberwhich happens from time to timeadministrators need to formalize their expectations and their directives in such a way that they can document the efforts they have made to resolve the matter in dispute. In the Stotter case, the university was apparently concerned about the condition of Stotters laboratory for a long period of timeabout two yearsbefore a clear written directive was sent to Stotter from someone in authority.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Stotter case reminds us of the value of patience and forbearance when handling minor academic disputes. UTSA had been remarkably patient in its dealings with Dr. Stotter until the day it sent him a certified letter informing him that his lab had been closed and would be cleaned up in just three days. After waiting more than two years to take action, why didnt UTSA give Stotter a reasonable amount of time to go to his laboratory and retrieve his personal property?
Dont make a mountain out of a molehill, is a warning we hear from time to time. In other words, dont make too much of a problem that really isnt all that serious. When university administrators become annoyed with a subordinate over some minor matter and are tempted to take strong, unilateral action, they should think about the Stotter case. It is almost always better for academicians to resolve minor disputes among themselves and not in the courts.
Stotter v. University of Texas at San Antonio, 508 F.3d 812 (5thCir. 2007).