Anthony Chase, a former tenured professor at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center in Florida is suing the law school for firing him due to its fear that he was “mentally deranged enough to engage in a campus shooting rampage.” His attorney has charged that the school not only did not give him a fair investigation but “buried the entire paper trail” to justify the termination. The lawsuit raises a novel claim under Americans with Disabilities Act alleging that Chase was fired based on the school’s perception of a mental disability.
Chase was fired after colleagues reported in 2010 that he made worrisome statements about guns and shooting. The school referenced an email where Chase complained to a colleague about the treatment by facilities maintenance staffers and mentioned his acquisition of “a large Beretta hand gun” and a scheduled “how to shoot” course. Chase insists that these communications were misconstrued, meant as jokes, and that he has never owned a gun.
The case has already generated some tough issues including a ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Seltzer that the law school did not have to turn over material from witness interviews conducted during its internal investigation; an executive summary prepared by an attorney retained by the school to investigate the matter; or several memos and e-mails regarding the matter. All were found properly withheld under the work product privilege. That is the paper trial that Chase’s lawyer said he needed to establish the violation.
In addition to claiming to own a Beretta 8000, Chase reportedly said after he was put on administrative leave that “I can shoot pretty good from the windows into the parking lot.” Yet, Chase insists that this was a joke based on the statement of a FBI investigator of the Beltway sniper that he would zig zag on the way to his car.
In addition to the ADA, he makes contractual arguments based on the guarantees of tenure.
The contractual claim seems stronger. However, courts tend to be reluctant to second guess internal investigations. Chase however is arguing that these statements are insufficient as a basis for termination of a tenured law professor. Notably, Chase was not charged with criminal threats or stalking or any crime. Few would quibble with the wisdom of the suspension, but should the law school establish that the threats were intentional (and not jokes) before terminating a tenured professor? Likewise, should a professor accused of mental instability be afforded a leave of action for treatment before termination?