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 professor’s office and his laboratory—a 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 Professor’s 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 Stotter’s office and laboratory in 1999 or perhaps even earlier. At one point, UTSA “determined that Dr. Stotter’s office was an ‘extreme fire hazard’ due to papers, trash, and boxes” (p. 818). During 1999 and 2000, UTSA inspected Dr. Stotter’s laboratory several times.


Finally, in early January 2001, the chemistry department’s supervisor sent Dr. Stotter a letter, telling him that he had violated the University’s 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. Stotter’s 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, 2001—more than two years after UTSA first expressed concern about Stotter’s 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. Bailey’s 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 Bailey’s letter did not arrive until February 28. By that time, UTSA had already cleaned Dr. Stotter’s 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 University’s Board of Regents voted to terminate Dr. Stotter’s 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. Stotter’s claims. A federal trial court granted UTSA’s motion and dismissed Dr. Stotter’s 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 Stotter’s 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 Stotter’s 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 scholar’s 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 member—which happens from time to time—administrators 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 Stotter’s laboratory for a long period of time—about two years—before 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 didn’t UTSA give Stotter a reasonable amount of time to go to his laboratory and retrieve his personal property?


“Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill,” is a warning we hear from time to time. In other words, don’t make too much of a problem that really isn’t 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.


Reference


Stotter v. University of Texas at San Antonio, 508 F.3d 812 (5thCir. 2007).







Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 16, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15219, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 12:46:46 AM

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