South Carolina Professor Loses Breach of Employment Contract Case
A tenured professor at Erskine College in Due West claimed the institution breached its employment contract with him as set forth in the faculty manual. The trial court overruled the jury verdict in the professor’s favor, but the South Carolina Court of Appeals reinstated it. A sharply divided South Carolina Supreme Court, however, recently agreed with the trial court and decided the college hadn’t breached the contract.
Contract or No Contract?
William Crenshaw, the professor, claimed Erskine violated the faculty manual provisions titled "Termination of Tenured Faculty Appointments." In the complaint, he alleged the "relationship thus became an ongoing contract between [him] and . . . Erskine College governed by The College Faculty Handbook."
At trial, Erskine refused to concede the faculty manual is a contract. The college stood its ground until it was forced to concede the point during oral argument. As a matter of law, the court decided the college’s manual is indeed a contract with its tenured professors.
What Faculty Manual Says
Erskine’s faculty manual sets forth certain expectations and standards for tenured faculty members to follow. It also provides the grounds or causes for termination and a process by which the college may discharge a faculty member. In addition, the manual contains a procedure for tenured faculty members to follow to contest a termination, which includes:
• Preliminary proceedings requiring a meeting, which was held in Crenshaw’s case;
• Formal proceedings requiring a written explanation, which Erskine’s president satisfied;
• Hearing committee input, which requires the aggrieved faculty member to request a hearing; and
• Board review.
The hearing committee has the authority to overrule the president, and the board has the authority to overrule the hearing committee.
Ultimately, under the Erskine faculty manual, the board has the final decision about a tenured faculty member’s continued employment. It has the ultimate authority to overrule or affirm the hearing committee. In other words, the board—not the college president—has exclusive authority to determine whether adequate cause exists to terminate a tenured professor and, even if so, whether to do so.
The question framed by the supreme court’s majority was whether there was any evidence to support a finding that Erskine failed to follow the procedures promised to Crenshaw in the faculty manual. It found there was none. The college president satisfied the first step (preliminary proceedings) by meeting with Erskine on August 6, 2011. The second step (formal proceedings) was satisfied on August 12, when the president sent an e-mail and a letter to the professor.
The third step involved the hearing committee meeting, which the faculty manual required Crenshaw to request or it wouldn’t take place. Therefore, even if Erskine failed in the first or second step, the professor’s failure to avail himself of the third step extinguished his right to recover for breach of contract.
Crenshaw elected not to seek a review of the president's decision or initiate the proceedings. His inaction was akin to what happens when would-be litigants fail to exhaust their administrative remedies. More accurately here, however, the professor failed to pursue his only contractual remedy, which was to take the question to the board and, if the board's decision was adverse, challenge that decision in court.
Crenshaw's contract set forth the remedies he may enforce. Because the contract permitted (1) the hearing committee to overrule the president and (2) the board to overrule the committee, the president's decision isn’t actionable (or can’t be targeted in litigation). The professor’s only contractual remedy was to challenge a final decision, which—under the contract’s terms—must be the board’s decision. Based on his failure to do so, the trial court correctly ruled Erskine hadn’t breached his contract.
Lessons for Employers
When someone breaches a contract with your organization, closely examine the documents alleged to be the agreement in question. Be certain you’ve met the obligations you indicated you must perform, and be sure the person making the claim has done the same thing.
In Crenshaw’s case, the court found his failure to take a required step doomed his claim. Consequently, the college president’s preliminary determination—i.e., adequate cause existed for the professor’s termination—became the final decision.