William Mitchell College of Law Professor Peter Erlinder has filed suit against his own law school after being banned from campus for allegedly inappropriate and possibly threatening conduct. Erlinder claims that his conduct is due to post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his jailing in Rwanda. This lawsuit follows another lawsuit by a John Marshall Law Professor who says that a disability has caused him to act oddly and experience outbursts toward colleagues and students. [For full disclosure, years ago, I had brief interaction with Professor Erlinder in a case after I came on as lead counsel. Professor Erlinder’s role in the case ended soon after I became lead counsel]. In one prior communication, an administrator said that a doctor had expressed a concern that “Prof. Erlinder might go postal …. ” (Erlinder challenges that veracity of that statements and alleges that the doctor has denied that he ever made such a statement). He is seeking both compensatory damages ($50,000) as well as punitive and treble damages (in addition to injunctive relief such as reinstatement).
The lawsuit raised 19 counts against colleagues and the school for intentional infliction of emotional distress, discrimination on the basis of a disability, defamation, age discrimination, and contractual claims.
According to the complaint, he school had banned Erlinder from campus due to prior conduct and imposed the following conditions in a January 13, 2012 Letter:
Effective immediately, you are not to enter upon or into College buildings or any part of the College campus, and this restriction will continue during the period of your leave. If you need specific College resources, we will consider your requests on a case .. by-case basis. You may contact Mary Gale by email with any such requests. You may contact Mary Gale to make reasonable arrangements to pick up your belongings from your office. Your return to the College will be contingent upon your receiving a satisfactory medical certification that you are able to resume your duties as a member of the College’s faculty.
The complaint details the basis for the disability discrimination claim, which is tied to his representation of a Rwandan opposition leader charged with promoting genocidal ideology (Erlinder was accused of violating Rwandan law barring anyone from denying or minimizing genocide):
Professor Erlinder suffers the chronic disability of post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd) as the result of his unlawful imprisonment and near-execution by Paul Kagame, head of state of Rwanda, in 2010.1 Ptsd manifests in Professor Erlinder as a chronic disability that has in Professor Erlinder substantially and materially impaired major life activities that include social interaction, concentration, memory, and thinking, on account of external
stimuli that recreate the reality Professor Erlinder experienced as a helpless prisoner at the mercy of a tyrant. Professor Erlinder faced continuous, arbitrary execution risk by armed child soldiers over a three~week period of unlawful imprisonment in Rwanda from May to June 2010, on account of acts of scholarship, service, and advocacy by Professor Erlinder.
While Erlinder was previously reported as acknowledging an attempt to kill himself in Rwanda, his complaint says that it was all an act to secure his freedom:
He was able to escape only by getting the attention of Hillary Clinton by feigning despair to the edge of suicide by overdose of medications, when Kenyan attorneys coming to his aid gained his humanitarian release in June 2010, after unlawful captivity and a worldwide publicity campaign that placed outside pressure upon the United States Government and Government of Rwanda to release Professor Erlinder
It was not an easy return all around for Erlinder who reported by mugged soon after his return from Rwanda.
Erlinder was later barred by the United Nations from serving as counsel in proceedings — concluding that Erlinder’s “conduct amounts to a failure to act diligently and in good faith and does not demonstrate the highest standards of professional conduct.” Erlinder insists that his ban by the U.N. was the result of his refusing to travel to Arusha, Tanzania for the U.N. proceedings in fear of being kidnapped or killed by Rwanda. He stated at the time that “I would not be at my best in Arusha.”
Erlinder claims that his PTSD caused him to act differently and that the school ignored his disability and took extreme actions, including efforts to post guards to protect Dean Eric Janus (right) from him after prior incidents:
After the exclusion ORDER on January 13, 2012, Eric Janus ordered armed security personnel and a personal armed bodyguard to sit prominently in the Dean’s suite following the public expulsion from campus, thus creating the implication that Eric Janus had/has reasons to fear for his safety.
This followed some pretty odd communications. For example:
Vice Dean Schaumann emailed Professor Erlinder on 3 January 2012 at 4:06 p.m.,71 without disclosing the basis of his request, viz., the email from Ms. Copeland, stating, ‘”‘Hi, Peter, I’d like to meet with you this week if at all possible…. If this week doesn’t work, can we try for early next week. I’m out Monday but in the rest of the week. — Niels”
Professor Erlinder responded by email to Vice pean Schaumann at 5:16 p.m.,72 one hour later: “My hands are shaking, can’t think, dizzy, pulling off road, using PTSD reaction technq …. Lynette Fraction … No … can’t meet w/you or Eric in surprise session, and alone. Shrink will advise. Not.. personal, not angry …. Lack of awareness of old story. No more abuse. P”
Erlinder later accused the administration of being “emotional brutalizers, and it continues, without a hint of self-awareness …”
The school insists in its reply that “vilified and threatened retaliation against faculty colleagues and college officials who, in the exercise of their collegial governance responsibilities, did not acquiesce to his unreasonable demands.” It has further stated that he has a history of sending “disrespectful, unprofessional and untruthful e-mails to fellow employees.”
The school has said that it will fully litigate the case and portrays its actions as protecting the school and its staff and students. It is in that sense a classic case where an employer suggests that it is acting proactively in the case of an unhinged employee while the employee alleges retaliation and discrimination for the actions. However, that is where the comparisons to conventional cases end. Nothing in this case seems ordinary or predictable. Erlinder has offered detailed records of his care for PTSD and challenged many of the factual statements of the school. These include express denials about statements made by his treating doctors as well as the school’s alleged violation of confidentiality principle in speaking with his doctors. The school has insisted that he is misrepresenting the record and their motivations. As with the John Marshall case, there is also the issue of how law professor with emotional or psychiatric issues can function in relations with students and faculty.
The disability and contractual claims are probably the strongest at this stage. However, discovery is likely to be brutal given the allegations and the animosity.