Former professors file lawsuit against Canisius, citing “breach of contract”

Four former Canisius faculty members have filed a lawsuit against Canisius in New York Supreme Court, alleging their contracts were breached when they were laid off in last July’s wave of program cuts.

(Griffin File Photo)

Four former Canisius faculty let go over the summer have sued the college for breach of contract. 

Dr. Maria Fernanda Astiz, Dr. Steven Maddox, Dr. Matthew Mitchell and Dr. Kathryn Williams filed the suit in New York State Supreme Court in December, according to court documents. 

The former Canisius professors are seeking $4 million in compensatory damages, excluding punitive damages, interests and other legal fees, according to additional documents filed on Feb. 5. 

The lawsuit says the college violated the professors’ contracts after notifying them over the summer that they would be terminated for the 2020-2021 school year without following the normal process of laying off or firing professors who have already earned tenure. “Tenure” is a kind of permanent employment professors can earn after a probationary period of several years. In practice, the college must follow a specific process before firing tenured professors.

Over the summer, 23 faculty and 71 additional support and administrative staff were affected by layoffs during a wave of program cuts.

According to the documents filed in court, the faculty handbook “obliges the College to follow specific procedures with regard to faulty appointments and classifications, … and the separation of faculty.” 

President John Hurley declined to comment on the lawsuit, but he told The Griffin last fall that the school’s Board of Trustees had the power to go around the faculty handbook when making decisions.  

“I said at the outset that we were going to do our best to observe the spirit of the handbook and its procedures, even if we couldn’t fulfill every single procedural restriction. I don’t think any of these things are drafted with the idea of a global pandemic, and that’s the problem we are facing,” President John Hurley said in September. 

“Now, I’m not saying we threw [the handbook] out, there was consultation with the faculty here. We have in the academic program board guidelines and a recognition that we are entitled to eliminate programs and the Board ultimately has a final say in that.”

According to court documents, Canisius has until Friday to formally respond to the lawsuit. 

The four professors in the lawsuit were laid off this summer as Canisius addressed a projected $20 million budget deficit, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Board of Trustees determined that $12.3 million in budget moves were immediately required. 

Astiz was a full professor in the college’s Teacher Education department and first came to Canisius in 2002. Maddox was an associate professor of history and had been at Canisius since 2009. Mitchell was a full professor in the Religious Studies and Theology Department and had been here since 2008. Williams was an associate professor and chair of the classics department, and joined the college in 2006, according to the lawsuit. Each had been tenured by Canisius. 

As part of the cuts, the college eliminated majors in classics, creative and performing arts, human services, physics, religious studies, entrepreneurship, urban studies, European studies and international business.  The college also made cuts to the philosophy, history, management, English and chemistry departments, but maintained them as majors. 

The plaintiffs are represented by Lisa Coppola of The Coppola Firm. Canisius will be represented by Hayley Dryer and James Ryan of Cullen and Dykman, LLP. 

State Supreme Court Justice Emilio Colaiacovo has been assigned to the case, which is scheduled for a court appearance on March 12. 

In related news, the Canisius Faculty Senate voted “no confidence” in Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Sara Morris, 16-1-1, at a senate meeting on Feb. 5. The senate voted “no confidence” in President Hurley in July.  

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