U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Plaintiff worked as the executive director for a public radio station and related foundation, both affiliated with a state university. He reported to the university president. The university president became concerned with how the foundation was spending its money. An audit determined that there was an inherent conflict of interest in having the same person serve in both capacities. The plaintiff then asked the foundation board to sever its ties with the university.

The university responded by having its lawyers send a letter to the plaintiff and foundation board of directors suggesting their actions might not be covered by directors and officers’ insurance. The situation remained at a stalemate until the university informed the plaintiff his contract would not be renewed for the following term.

The plaintiff sued the university for a variety of claims including deprivation of a liberty interest without due process of law. The district court granted summary judgment on all claims but the deprivation of liberty claim. The university president appealed. The Ninth Circuit reversed.

The panel held both that the attorney letter did not contain stigmatizing information and that the university president was entitled to qualified immunity. The letter talked about the legal standards for a bad faith exclusion from insurance coverage but did not impute bad faith to the plaintiff. Furthermore, no case had held that language suggesting a possible breach of fiduciary duty constitutes stigma for a deprivation of liberty interest.

Kramer v. Cullinan, 878 F.3d 1156 (9th Cir. 1/3/2018) (Rawlinson, Tashima, Gould)