A California Supreme Court opinion issued this week clears the way for a CSU Long Beach professor to take the university to court for what he says was unlawful retaliation for whistleblowing.
Flickr photo by Brian Turner
Finance professor Lowell Runyon was demoted from his position as department chairman in 2004 by the then-dean of the College of Business Administration, Luis Calingo, according to court documents and a 2005 story in the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
Runyon said the demotion was retaliation for the tenured professor's complaints about Calingo. Runyon had criticized the dean for commuting each week from his home in central California, traveling abroad extensively and granting tenure to a job candidate despite faculty concerns, the Press-Telegram reported.
The university maintained that Calingo had demoted Runyon purely for job performance-related reasons. Runyon's demotion meant a loss of about $13,000 per year in compensation, according to court documents.
In response to Runyon's retaliation claim, the university launched an internal investigation in 2005. The investigator dismissed Runyon's claim, saying his criticisms of Calingo did not qualify as "protected disclosures."
The investigator also said Runyon had been removed as chair not because of his complaints about Calingo, but because he had made "inadequate progress toward an expected review of the department‘s curriculum."
Runyon fought that finding, but ultimately the university's vice chancellor of human resources issued a final determination that no retaliation had taken place.
Runyon sued, but the trial court granted the university's motion for summary judgment, saying the California Whistleblower Protection Act allows a civil lawsuit only if the university failed to reach a decision on a written complaint within a certain amount of time.
The act allows a whistleblower to sue if the university has either failed to reach a decision or has not satisfactorily addressed the complaint within 18 months.
In the lower court's view, the university had "satisfactorily addressed" the complaint because it had investigated Runyon's claim and issued a decision in the proper time frame. An appeals court upheld that ruling.
But the May 3 opinion written by California Supreme Court Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar reversed the Second District Court of Appeal's decision. The other six justices concurred.
Werdegar's opinion found that the university had not "satisfactorily addressed" the complaint because the investigation's result did not satisfy Runyon.
Runyon's attorney, Philip Ganz Jr., said the opinion gives Runyon his day in court and establishes rights for all whistleblowers in the CSU system who go through the grievance process.
"We're thrilled," Ganz said.
Claudia Keith, spokeswoman for the CSU system, said the court's decision had nothing to do with the merits of Runyon's retaliation claims.
Six years after he was demoted, Runyon remains a professor at CSU Long Beach. Calingo left the university in 2006 to become dean of the business school at John Carroll University in Cleveland. He left that job in 2007 to become dean of the School of Business and Leadership at Dominican University in San Rafael. He is now the university's executive vice president and chief academic officer.
The Press-Telegram reported in 2005 that the demotion and its aftermath created a fractious work environment in the college. Instructors had divided loyalties, with some lining up in favor of the dean and others backing Runyon.
One professor who was in Runyon's camp, Alex Wilson, ended up resigning from the department in 2004, citing the hyper-political environment as cause:
"I see no prospect of the situation improving, as the war of memos, lawsuits and newspaper articles instensifies," Wilson wrote. "It is time for me to move on; the phrase that resonates in my brain is, 'Life is too short for this type of stupidity.'"