PHOENIX — A University of Arizona doctor and researcher who was given her walking papers last month is not going quietly.
Suzanne Sisley has filed a formal appeal of the decision by the school to terminate her from three separate positions. She contends decisions not to renew her contract are a direct result of her support of — and lobbying for — medical marijuana research.
But Marc Victor, one of her lawyers, said he doubts the university will reverse its actions. Victor said he expects the only way for Sisley to get real relief is to go to court.
Sisley was an assistant professor in the psychiatry department at the medical school, an assistant director of the Arizona Telemedicine Program, and coordinator of special research projects.
That was until she got a letter saying that her contract will not be renewed. Joe Garcia, interim dean of the College of Medicine, provided no reason.
In her notice of appeal, her attorneys conceded only the assistant professor post may be appealable. And they said the loss of all three positions might just be “coincidence.”
But they also said certain inferences can be made, noting it came on the heels of Sisley getting permission from the federal Public Health Service to do research on the university campus of whether marijuana can be helpful in treating the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“At the moment Dr. Sisley won the right to conduct this research, the university determined that it would not renew her position,” the appeal reads. “The decision to effectively terminate seemed to take place in an environment of outside political pressure.”
Sisley has attributed the action to her vocal criticism of veteran state Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, who effectively killed legislation earlier this year that would have opened the door to state funding for the research Sisley wants to do.
The appeal acknowledges the “assumptions” of why Sisley was fired cannot be verified. But her attorneys said that’s because of the university’s “refusal to provide grounds, evidence, or a hearing” on the issue.
Part of the legal question turns on a 1980s Arizona Supreme Court ruling that Arizona is an “at will” employment state.
That means people can be fired if the employer has a good reason or even has no reason at all. But the high court said someone fired for a “bad reason” has the right to sue.
“The question in my mind is: Is it a bad reason, is it a prohibited reason, for a public university to terminate somebody based on their political views?” Victor said.
He said it may take a lawsuit to learn if that is the case, because a legal action, known as “discovery,” gives attorneys the right to demand various records.
“We don’t know what emails or memos or things of that nature might say,” he said.
“They won’t even give us what their stated reason is right now,” Victor continued. “Is that backed up? What do other people working there have to say about it?”
There was no immediate response from the university. But in a comment earlier this month, UA spokesman George Humphrey denied there was any political pressure to let Sisley go.
He also said the university has not been averse to marijuana research. Humphrey said the school’s lobbyists actively supported prior legislation sponsored by Yee to remove the legal hurdles that had blocked any marijuana from being allowed on campus, even for research.
In the notice, Sisley’s attorneys went beyond the legal issues and appealed to the sentiments of university officials.
At issue, they said, is not some academic grant on architecture “but a million-dollar study concerning the effects of a medicine that could aid our veterans who are committing suicide every day.” They cited figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs that an average of 22 vets kill themselves each day due to untreated or undertreated PTSD.
The lawyers also said Sisley has certain First Amendment rights of expression and association, and that the university, as a public institution, is required to provide her with procedural due process according to the 14th Amendment.