Suddith v. University of Southern Miss., 2005-CA-02130-COA.

CourtCourt of Appeals of Mississippi
Citation977 So.2d 1158
Docket NumberNo. 2005-CA-02130-COA.,2005-CA-02130-COA.
PartiesJohn SUDDITH, Appellant, v. UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI, Dr. Aubrey K. Lucas, Individually and Officially, and Dr. G. David Huffman, Individually and Officially, Appellees.
Decision Date31 July 2007
977 So.2d 1158
John SUDDITH, Appellant,
UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI, Dr. Aubrey K. Lucas, Individually and Officially, and Dr. G. David Huffman, Individually and Officially, Appellees.
No. 2005-CA-02130-COA.
Court of Appeals of Mississippi.
July 31, 2007.
Rehearing Denied December 11, 2007.

[977 So.2d 1164]

Kim T. Chaze, Hattiesburg, attorney for appellant.

John S. Hooks, James A. Keith, Jackson, Ian C. Jones, Lee P. Gore, attorneys for appellee.


BARNES, J, for the Court.

¶ 1. This case involves an employment dispute between The University of Southern Mississippi ("USM"), Dr. Aubrey Lucas, Dr. David Huffman, and one of USM's former professors, John Suddith, who filed suit alleging numerous state and federal violations. Suddith now appeals from the Circuit Court of Forrest County's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Defendants. We find the trial court was without reversible error and affirm.


¶ 2. In the fall of 1993, John Suddith was offered and accepted a temporary position for one year as a part-time gallery director and instructor with the university's Department of Art. In February of 1994, Suddith applied for and was selected for a "full-time tenure-track" position in the art department. The Chairman of the Department of Art, Jerry Walden, in a letter dated April 12, 1994, offered Suddith a "tenure-track appointment as Assistant Professor and Gallery Director ... subject to final approval by the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning." The letter reiterated that "all contracts of employment at the University are subject to final approval by the Board of Trustees." Shortly thereafter, Suddith accepted the position by "letter. On May 17, 1994, USM's then-president, Dr. Lucas, in a letter to the faculty members of the art

977 So.2d 1165

department, stated his approval of Dr. David Huffman's recommendation to hire Suddith despite the faculty's "disagreement about his appointment." In August of 1994, Suddith began work at USM in this position.

¶ 3. Before Dr. Lucas submitted Suddith's appointment to the Board of Trustees ("Board") for approval, an allegation surfaced from an anonymous Board member that Suddith, while married, had engaged in an affair with a student during his previous employment at Louisiana College. Dr. Lucas instructed Dr. Huffman, then-Vice President of Academic Affairs, to investigate the allegation, which was found to be true. When confronted by Chairman Walden, Suddith admitted to the affair. Dr. Lucas testified that he would not knowingly recommend employing a person who had had sex with a student, that he would want such information at the time of employment, and that he would move to remove a faculty member who engaged in that behavior. He further testified that for a faculty member to have sexual relations with a student is not proper conduct and damages the ability of the faculty member to be objective in grading the student. Dr. Lucas continued that, during the application process, Suddith had not been forthcoming with this information and had given other reasons for his departure from Louisiana College. Dr. Lucas therefore decided not to recommended Suddith to the Board for a tenure-track appointment but instead recommended him for a one-year only, non-tenure-track appointment. The Board approved of Dr. Lucas's one-year recommendation. Suddith received his appointment, commencing August of 1994 to May of 1995, according to excerpts of the Board's minutes of and agenda for August 18, 1994.

¶ 4. On October 24, 1994, Dr. Lucas wrote Suddith a letter explaining that the appointment approved by the Board was for one-year only and was not tenure-track. Attached to this letter was a contract memorializing the one-year appointment, which Suddith signed. Dr. Lucas's office received the contract on November 9, 1994, and Dr. Lucas executed the contract "for the Board."1 According to the contract, Suddith's appointment ended on May 18, 1995. On May 17, 1995, Suddith wrote Dr. Lucas a letter stating his intent "to file a grievance procedure related to [his] position as Gallery Director" at USM. Suddith also wrote that it was his understanding that "the ten-day filing time from the last day of [his] contract (May 18th) will be up on the 28th of May." A few days later, following standard procedure, Suddith circulated his grievance form to various university departments. In the grievance Suddith complained that he was "terminated on May 18, 1995" for reasons that had nothing to do with his competency and that he was being discriminated against. He also complained that USM had not given any reason to terminate him and was "using the past to justify and break its contract." On May 25, 1995, Dr. Huffman wrote Suddith a letter explaining that his grievance was untimely. Dr. Huffman explained that since Suddith's employment contract was executed on November 9, 1994, he could not file a grievance in May 1995 because, according to the Faculty Handbook, "a grievance must be filed within two weeks of the incident." Dr. Huffman interpreted this time period to require filing within two weeks of November 9, 1994. Dr. Lucas

977 So.2d 1166

testified that he met with Suddith in the summer of 1995, after Suddith's contract expired, and explained to Suddith that he would never knowingly hire a teacher who had engaged in an affair with a student.

¶ 5. Suddith filed a wrongful termination suit in the Circuit Court of Forrest County against USM and Drs. Aubrey Lucas and David Huffman, in their individual and official capacities. Suddith alleged numerous state and federal violations, including deprivation of various constitutional rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, breach of employment contract, and commission of several state-law torts. He sought compensatory and punitive damages, attorney's fees and equitable relief including reinstatement, back pay, front pay and interest. Ultimately, the trial court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment and/or for qualified immunity on each of Suddith's claims. Suddith timely appealed.


¶ 6. This Court utilizes a de novo standard to review the trial court's grant of summary judgment. Stallworth v. Sanford, 921 So.2d 340, 341(¶ 5) (Miss.2006) (citing Davis v. Hoss, 869 So.2d 397, 401(¶ 10) (Miss.2004)). This standard requires that the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any," properly before the trial court, will be reexamined by this Court in order to determine if there is any genuine issue of material fact. M.R.C.P. 56(c). Summary judgment is appropriate if the record shows "that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Id. The evidence will be analyzed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Triplett v. Dempsey, 633 So.2d 1011, 1013 (Miss.1994).


¶ 7. Suddith raises seven issues on appeal; however, we will discuss the case in the following manner: first, we will address Suddith's general argument regarding the appropriateness of summary judgment. Then, we will discuss Suddith's federal-law and state-law claims.

¶ 8. Suddith argues that the trial court erred in making factual conclusions which were inappropriate in a summary judgment setting. He claims that there are numerous genuine issues of material fact in dispute which warrant presentation to a jury for resolution, such as whether Suddith was tenure-track, whether his contract was ratified by the Board, and whether he was entitled to certain benefits enumerated in the Faculty Handbook.

¶ 9. The law of summary judgment is well-established. Summary judgment will only be granted when there is no genuine issue of material fact to be decided at trial, thus judgment is granted as a matter of law. Mink v. Andrew Jackson Cas. Ins. Co., 537 So.2d 431, 432-33 (Miss. 1988). "A material fact is one which resolves any `of the issues, properly raised by the parties.'" Strantz ex rel. Minga v. Pinion, 652 So.2d 738, 741 (Miss.1995) (quoting Stegall v. WTWV, Inc., 609 So.2d 348, 351 (Miss.1992)). Summary judgment may not be a substitute for trying disputed factual issues. Mink, 537 So.2d at 433 (citing Brown v. Credit Center, Inc., 444 So.2d 358, 362 (Miss.1983)). To withstand summary judgment, the party opposing the motion must present sufficient proof to establish each element of each claim. Galloway v. Travelers Ins. Co., 515 So.2d 678, 684 (Miss.1987). Further, he must present more than a mere scintilla of colorable evidence to support his claims. Luvene v.

977 So.2d 1167

Waldrup, 903 So.2d 745, 748(¶ 10) (Miss. 2005) (citing Wilbourn v. Stennett, Wilkinson & Ward, 687 So.2d 1205, 1214 (Miss. 1996)). Additionally, the party opposing summary judgment "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleadings, but his response ... must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." M.R.C.P. 56(e). The evidence must be sufficient that a fairminded jury could return a favorable verdict. Id. Importantly, "[m]ere allegation ... of material fact is insufficient to generate a triable issue of fact" and avoid summary judgment. Palmer v. Biloxi Reg'l Med. Ctr., 564 So.2d 1346, 1356 (Miss.1990) (citing Smith v. Sanders, 485 So.2d 1051, 1054 (Miss.1986)). Specifically, "the plaintiff may not rely solely upon the unsworn allegations in the pleadings or `arguments and assertions in briefs or legal memoranda.'" Id. (quoting Magee v. Transcon. Gas Pipe Line Corp., 551 So.2d 182, 186 (Miss.1989)). "Where the non-moving party fails to establish `the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial,' no genuine issue of material fact can exist." Whiting v. Univ. of Southern Miss., 451...

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