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Renken v. Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

October 28, 2019

KEVIN J. RENKEN, Plaintiff,



         1. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff filed this action on July 30, 2019 in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. (Docket #1-2 at 3-16). Plaintiff, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (“UWM”), sues Defendants, the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System (the “Board”), UWM itself, Mark Mone (“Mone”), the Chancellor of UWM, and John Boyland (“Boyland”), the chair of the UWM Faculty Rights and Responsibilities Committee (“FRRC”), for violating his right to due process in suspending him from his teaching position. Id. Defendants removed the case to this Court on August 5, 2019. (Docket #1). Along with the removal, the Clerk of the Court docketed a motion for a preliminary injunction that Plaintiff had filed in state court on August 2, 2019. (Docket #3). Three days after removal, Plaintiff filed an additional motion seeking a temporary restraining order. (Docket #11). Defendants then filed a motion to dismiss this action on August 23, 2019. (Docket #18). All of the motions are fully briefed, and for the reasons explained below, Plaintiff's motions will be denied, Defendants' will be granted in part, and this action will be dismissed.


         2.1 Standard of Review

         Defendants have moved to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). That Rule provides for dismissal of complaints which fail to state a viable claim for relief. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In reviewing Plaintiff's complaint, the Court is required to “accept as true all of the well-pleaded facts in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in [his] favor[.]” Kubiak v. City of Chi., 810 F.3d 476, 480-81 (7th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). To state a viable claim, a complaint must provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). In other words, the complaint must give “fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citation omitted). The allegations must “plausibly suggest that the plaintiff has a right to relief, raising that possibility above a speculative level[.]” Kubiak, 810 F.3d at 480 (quotation omitted).

         2.2 Relevant Facts

         Accepting the truth of Plaintiff's well-pleaded allegations and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor, the relevant facts are as follows. Plaintiff is a tenured professor of mechanical engineering at UWM and has worked there since 1987. On February 21, 2019, a group of professors from Plaintiff's department filed a complaint against him with the UWM University Committee, alleging that he engaged in disruptive, abusive, and bullying behaviors. That committee forwarded the complaint to the FRRC.

         On March 3, Plaintiff sent a memorandum to Boyland, advising that Plaintiff had filed a charge of discrimination and harassment against the same group of professors who filed the complaint against him. Plaintiff's charge had not yet been resolved. Plaintiff questioned whether he was being retaliated against during the pendency of his own complaint, which is prohibited by UWM policy. Plaintiff asked Boyland to share this information with the FRRC, but Boyland responded that he could not, as doing so might make it appear that Plaintiff was retaliating against the other complainants.

         Plaintiff submitted a written response to the complaint on April 16. At the end of April, Boyland sent the FRRC's “tentative” conclusions to Plaintiff. The conclusions were that discipline was appropriate, and that the discipline should include barring Plaintiff from faculty meetings, forcing him to undergo counseling, and placing a letter of reprimand in his personnel file. Plaintiff was told that he could respond by lodging any disagreement he had with the tentative conclusions. He was further informed that if the parties had a dispute about the facts, the FRRC may institute factfinding procedures. On May 14, Plaintiff sent a cursory response noting his disagreement with several of the conclusions. Boyland responded that day, telling Plaintiff that if he had more detailed comments about his disagreements, he should send them along.

         The next day, Boyland e-mailed both parties. He attached each side's response to the tentative conclusions and stated that the FRRC would issue a final decision within ten days. This was the first Plaintiff saw of the other party's response. That response was sent by a fellow professor, Deyang Qu (“Qu”). Qu's response contained new allegations, including that Plaintiff had made threats of violence against other faculty members and had used xenophobic rhetoric. Plaintiff denies those allegations. Qu asked that the FRRC consider more serious disciplinary measures than those proposed in the tentative conclusions.

         Plaintiff immediately responded to Boyland, noting that Qu had raised new allegations. Unbeknownst to Plaintiff, the FRRC was already meeting in closed session to decide the complaint. Its decision was to recommend that Plaintiff be suspended without pay for two academic years. On May 17, having heard nothing from Boyland, Plaintiff invoked UWM policy in asking for a “fair hearing” on the complaint. Boyland, knowing that the decision had already been made, denied the request, stating that the investigation was complete. Boyland informed Plaintiff that the FRRC would engage in no further factfinding, and that his only recourse was to file an objection to the recommendation with the chancellor, Mone, within ten days.

         Along with this response, Boyland sent Plaintiff the FRRC's final report. Plaintiff contends that the FRRC relied on Qu's false allegations in rendering its recommendation. On May 20, Mone acknowledged receipt of the final report and advised that objections were due by June 3. Plaintiff then retained counsel to represent him. Plaintiff's counsel served his objections on June 3. Plaintiff claimed that the committee's findings were not supported by the factual record, that he had not been given fair notice of the charges against him or a fair hearing, that his statements underlying the complaint were protected speech, and that the discipline imposed was disproportionate to the alleged offense. Plaintiff stated that the FRRC's handling of the complaint violated UWM policy and his right to due process. Plaintiff asked Mone to reject the FRRC recommendation and hold a formal factfinding hearing before issuing a decision.

         On July 8, Mone issued a decision adopting the FRRC's findings and denying Plaintiff's request for a hearing. Mone also imposed the following discipline: suspension without pay for the 2019-20 academic year, cancelling Plaintiff's upcoming sabbatical, barring Plaintiff from coming to campus during the suspension, and barring Plaintiff from contacting UWM except through the dean. Plaintiff alleges that Mone's decision was based not only on the incorrect findings of the FRRC, but also Mone's own off-the-record ...

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