The CEO of Pima Community College violated the civil rights of a chemistry instructor who was let go under questionable circumstances in 2014, a federal judge has found.
Chancellor Lee Lambert, an attorney with a civil-rights background, may be personally liable for damages in the case of David A. Katz, a former faculty senator who was suspended and eventually lost his job without having an opportunity to defend himself, contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment, the judge said.
Taxpayers also could be on the hook for damages because PCC’s Governing Board voted to deny Katz a new contract for the 2015 school year on Lambert’s say-so without regard for whether Katz had received the due process required by federal law, U.S. District Court Judge Cindy K. Jorgenson said in an order dated July 25.
Lambert, asked for comment on the judge’s finding after a fundraiser at a hotel Thursday, said he can’t talk about the case while it’s still before the court.
A few days after the judge’s order, both sides agreed to settlement talks set to begin next month. Katz filed the federal suit in late 2014.
Katz, an internationally renowned chemist who worked at the college for 11 years, wants his old job back. He also is seeking back pay for his $65,000-a-year position, as well a legal costs and unspecified general and punitive damages.
“The judge’s order is not only a vindication for me,” Katz said in an email interview Friday. “It’s a win for all employees” who now may be spared similar mistreatment, he said.
He estimated he has spent around $40,000 on legal fees so far.
Lambert’s culpability for the civil-rights violation was established during the pretrial phase when Jorgenson granted Katz summary judgment on part of his lawsuit.
The judge’s finding also applies to Lambert’s co-defendants Mary Kay Gilliland, a former dean at PCC’s west campus and her then-boss, campus President Lou Albert. They, too, face liability for damages, as does the college district as a whole.
The Fourteenth Amendment provides extensive due-process protections to state employees, including the right to an impartial hearing, the right to a detailed account of alleged wrongdoing and the right to refute the allegations before disciplinary action occurs. PCC didn’t follow any of those practices in the Katz case, the judge said
Instead, Jorgenson said, college officials repeatedly overlooked Katz’s right to due process over a six-month period that began in September 2013, about three months after Lambert arrived at PCC.
Katz’s complaint says his troubles began a few months after he emailed his supervisor, Gilliland, to complain about numerous broken laboratory instruments gathering dust because there was no money in the budget to repair them.
PCC’s lawyers said Katz’s suspension wasn’t tied to his complaint. They characterized the chemist, who started at the college in 2002, as a longtime problem employee prone to swearing, door-slamming, and angry interactions with co-workers and bosses.
Faculty senators who served with Katz disputed that portrayal in interviews last week with the Arizona Daily Star.
Former senate president Joe Labuda, who still works at the college, described Katz as thoughtful and opinionated, someone who “was known as a good colleague.”
Labuda, who reviewed PCC’s communications with Katz and contacted the chancellor on Katz’s behalf, said as far as he could tell, there wasn’t any formal documentation to support the adminstration’s claim that Katz was a chronic troublemaker.
“David is very passionate about his field and at times he could get upset about things,” but not to the level that would justify the actions the college took, Labuda said. “I thought the whole thing was mishandled from start to finish.”
Former senator Barbara Benjamin said Katz was “a victim of a petty, subjective ‘system’ that takes umbrage at constructive criticism.”
Katz’s suspension letter cited a laundry list of alleged misconduct, including “lack of collegiality, disrespect, bullying or harassing, insubordination, use of profane language and an inappropriate display of anger,” court records show.
Jorgenson said the letter broke the law because it had no specifics, making it impossible for Katz to know the particulars of what he was accused of and how he should respond, the judge said.
After a month on paid suspension, Albert, the campus president, switched Katz to unpaid leave and recommended to Lambert that he be terminated — again without offering concrete details, the judge said.
Lambert pledged to investigate the case before making a termination decision but didn’t do either one of those things, court records show.
Instead, the chancellor put Katz back on paid leave and took no further action before the chemist’s annual contract expired six months later.
Lambert’s failure to make a formal termination decision denied Katz his legal right to a termination hearing, the judge said.
PCC’s lawyers sought to have Lambert exempted from personal liability for damages, saying he shouldn’t have to pay if he “reasonably believed” his conduct was lawful when he denied Katz a new contract.
Jorgenson said the chancellor’s action may have amounted to a breach of contract and rejected the idea that Lambert didn’t know any better.
“The court cannot find as a matter of law that Chancellor Lambert acted reasonably when he provided no due process, including notice,” to Katz, the judge wrote, noting that the chancellor is an attorney.
Lambert has a decade of experience in civil-rights and employment law, his LinkedIn profile shows. From 1994 to 1999, he worked at the Evergreen State College in Washington state as “special assistant to the president for civil rights and legal affairs.” After that, he spent five years as “vice president for human resources and legal affairs” at Centralia College in Washington.
Lambert wouldn’t say whose legal advice he relied on when deciding how to handle the Katz case, again citing the ongoing nature of the case. Court records show Jeff Silvyn, PCC’s general counsel, was heavily involved in handling the matter.
Katz’s lawsuit made several other constitutional claims the judge rejected, such as a claim that his First Amendment right to free speech was violated when he was disciplined after complaining about lab conditions.
On Wednesday, PCC’s Governing Board was slated to discuss the Katz case in a closed-door executive session. A few hours later, the board voted unanimously to add another year to the chancellor’s $299,000-a-year employment contract, extending it to 2019.
The decision was based on Lambert’s latest performance review, in which he met or exceeded all the board’s expectations, according to a board report on the performance review results.
The report noted Lambert’s extensive efforts to modernize the college and resolve its accreditation problems and praised him for having a strong moral compass.
The board is “very pleased with the chancellor’s vision for the college. The board is encouraged by the movement and direction of the institution,” it said.