Fired Professor Files $5 Million Disability Discrimination Suit Against Chapman U

Trial is scheduled to begin in July in a $5 million discrimination lawsuit brought against Chapman University by a professor who has or does teach ethics, morality and peace studies.

Angeliki Kanavou, a former assistant professor in Chapman’s Peace Studies Program—and now an adjunct professor at UC Irvine—alleges wrongful termination, disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, breach of contract and other claims in her suit before Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregory H. Lewis, who set a July 10 trial date.

To a legal novice, the case is unusual because in the years, months and even weeks before Kanavou’s termination, she regularly received pay raises, promotions and praise, at least according to court documents filed by her attorney Bruce T. Murray of Los Angeles.

This is especially obvious as it relates to Kanavou having courageously overcome serious injuries suffered from having been hit by a fast-moving vehicle on Jan. 13, 2007, in Pasadena. Indeed, disability discrimination and failure to provide reasonable accommodation under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) are among the seven causes of action Kanavou cites as justification to sue the university in Orange.

Her working relationship with Chapman began in 2003, when she was retained as an adjunct professor to teach “Negotiating Ethnic Conflict.” From the fall semester of 2003 to spring 2004, Kanavou was a post-doctoral fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Center for International Peace at the University of Notre Dame. She next returned to teach four classes as an adjunct professor in Chapman’s Peace Studies Program, and on July 25, 2006, she entered into a contract with the university as a tenured-track assistant professor of Political Science and Peace Studies within Chapman’s Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Around 10 a.m. on Jan. 13, 2007, she was loading shopping items into the trunk of her car when a vehicle clipped her from behind, breaking both her legs and her right arm and leaving her with a concussion and large gash on her head, which had slammed against the lid of her trunk. These injuries would lead to a nearly month-long stay in Huntington Hospital, seven nine surgeries and several months of physical therapy.

She came off state disability and returned to Chapman on Aug. 27, 2007, when, according to her complaint, though she required a wheelchair, crutches and still more rehabilitation, she received a heavier-than-usual workload. At the end of that fall semester, then-university Chancellor (and now-President) Daniele C. Stuppa sent Kanavou a letter stating she would receive a 4.7 percent pay raise, her complaint states.

The professor’s complaint goes on to list years of other raises, medical procedures, publications of her work, positive job performance reviews and her requests to extend her tenure review period (and which is now key to Chapman’s response to the lawsuit, as you’ll read below).

Stuppa approved two deferral requests—in 2008 and 2009—but declined to offer a further deferral in 2012, despite pleas on Kanavou’s behalf by her supervising professor, the late Don Will, as well as Patrick Fuery, dean of Chapman’s Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

In April of 2011, Kanavou and Stuppa executed a contract renewing her tenure-track appointment through May 31, 2016, with a two-year reappointment provision, according to the complaint. From the fall 2012 academic semester to the spring of 2013, she assumed the position of Interim Director of the Peace Studies Program as then-Director Don Will had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. (He passed away in February 2014.) According to court documents, Chapman now claims the term “contract” was a “mistake.”

Kanavou became concerned, her suit states, over a March 2012 letter from Chapman’s Director of Faculty Affairs Eileen Besner, who wanted to know whether the professor was going ahead with her critical year review. Two deans told Kanavou they would work to secure her another one-year tenure extension, she says, and the Faculty Review Committee unanimously recommended her continued appointment in a document dated Oct. 5, 2012.

In the meantime, Kanavou was engage in a multi-year research project focusing on Cambodian genocide survivors, which she would use to satisfy the publishing requirements of her tenure application. Her complaint notes that Struppa sent her a December 2012 letter stating she’d been granted a 2.5 percent pay raise with these words: “President [James] Doti and I are very appreciative of the contribution that you are making to the academic program of the university. Your dedication to high standards and commitment to the mission of Chapman University are helping carry us to ever greater levels of excellence.”

On Jan. 31, 2013, the Faculty Personnel Council recommended Kanavou’s dismissal “on the basis of insufficient scholarship,” court documents state.

Struppa issued a termination letter on March 10, 2013, around the time Kanavou met with him to express her concerns regarding the FPC’s recommendation “and to discuss her need for more time to complete her research projects,” according to her complaint, which adds:

But the conversation took a different direction: “On about March 10, 2013, I visited Chancellor Daniele C. Struppa’s office with a representative file of my work at the University. Beginning our conversation with small talk, the Chancellor remarked that ‘this country is not the same anymore’ because ‘everybody plays victim in America.’ These comments made me feel uneasy. I felt as if they were directed at me, as the ‘victim’ of an accident.”

In the months before, shortly after Kanavou left Chapman in May 2014 and even up until very recently, her research has been published, according to her complaint, which concludes she would have thus met the conditions of tenure had the extensions she had been promised been fulfilled.

Her suit claims the university’s actions violate FEHA, which makes it unlawful for an employer to: “discharge the person from employment because of his or her physical disability or medical condition;” “fail to make reasonable accommodations for the disabilities of an employee;” “fail to engage in a timely, good faith, interactive process with the employee to determine effective reasonable accommodations;” and “fail to take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring.”

Another cause of action under FEHA concerns “wrongful termination in violation of public policy,” Kanavou alleges. Her sixth cause of action concerns “breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing” and the seventh centers on “breach of employment contract.” She is seeking $5 million to cover lost wages and benefits, damages and legal fees.

In a statement emailed to the Weekly, Chapman University expresses confidence in prevailing:

Chapman University is confident the evidence in this case will establish that it granted Professor Kanavou every accommodation she ever requested, and the sole reason the University ended its relationship with her was due to a record of scholarship that even she agrees was substantially below what the University required for tenure track faculty.

Following her tragic accident in January 2007, Professor Kanavou was released to return to work without any restrictions in April 2007, and in 2008 and 2009, she requested two extensions of her review schedule, both of which the University immediately granted. When Professor Kanavou submitted her file for an intensive review over 5 years later, she did not inform anyone at the University that she was allegedly disabled or that her scholarship productivity was impacted by a disability. The University reviewed her record as she requested, and concluded that her record did not warrant her retention as a tenure track professor, a decision which it stands by.

In March, Kanavou’s lawyer Murray filed a “motion to compel” to force Chapman to release documentation regarding the university’s grievance procedure for a period of 10 years, a motion that the court granted. Based on the data Chapman released, from 2007-14, 11 university faculty members filed grievances against the university (or its staff) for a variety of reasons, including gender discrimination, racial discrimination, violation of academic freedom and various other complaints. Of these, seven were either resolved or withdrawn early in the grievance process. Of the remaining four grievances, none were resolved in the faculty member’s favor “through the university’s mapped-out system,” according to the court filing.

Among those four grievances was Kanavou’s own, filed in 2013, alleging breach of contract and disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Chapman’s Faculty Senate Executive Board dismissed her grievance rather than sending it to a hearing committee or a fact-finder, which are the next steps in the university’s grievance process. “In the technical language of the Chapman University Faculty Manual,” Murray states in the court document, “the Senate Executive Board found that Dr. Kanavou had not presented a ‘prima facie’ case for proceeding with her grievance.”

Kanavou next turned to the state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as filing a complaint with a state or federal agency is required before filing the type of lawsuit she later brought against the university.

On March 6, Judge Lewis essentially disagreed with the Chapman University Faculty Senate Board finding by denying the university’s motion to toss out Kanavou’s lawsuit, stating, “Defendant Chapman failed to meet its burden to show that Plaintiff Kanavou could not establish one of more elements of any of the causes of action or the basis for punitive damages. Plaintiff has met her burden to show that there are multiple triable issues of material fact.”

Kanavou is currently a Tobis Fellow at the Center of Ethics and Morality at UC Irvine.

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