November 17, 2009

Report by Ombuds Becomes Critical Evidence in Lawsuit Against University

On November 12, the University of Southern Mississippi was largely successful in defeating the claims of a tenured professor, Chauncey M. Depree. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the ruling of the trial court, which had dismissed nearly all of Depree's allegations that USM wrongly stripped him of his teaching duties and evicted him from his office because he had criticized the university. On the issue of whether the university had violated the professor's free speech rights, however, the appellate court returned the case to the trial court for further hearing. The appellate court found that the case presented complex First Amendment issues, particularly in light of a report prepared by UMN's Ombuds.

According to the court's summary, the case arose when faculty from the business USM business school complained about Depree's allegedly negative and disruptive behavior, and failure to engage in scholarly or professional activities. The University President relieved Depree of his teaching obligations and barred him from the campus. (Depree retained his title, tenure and salary despite USM's actions.) The President also requested the Provost to have the Ombuds investigate the charges against Depree. The Ombuds produced a report containing what the court characterized as "wholly dispassionate conclusions and recommendations." It was this report that gave the court a reason for the appellate court to remand the case for further development. The court said, "the late intervention of the Ombudsman report and [the President’s] response to it have created a factual moving target." The USM Ombuds is not identified by name in the court decision, nor is there a USM webpage for the Ombuds. (Depree v. Saunders, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 24969 (5th Cir. Miss. Nov. 12, 2009); Depree USM Bio.)

Organizational Ombuds, especially those in higher education will be quick to point out that they never conduct investigations at the behest of administrators and never issue written recommendations regarding the resolution of specific cases. Unfortunately, for Ombuds practicing in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, the case law now indicates otherwise.

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