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Olson v. Uehara

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

September 4, 2014

W. GARY OLSON, Plaintiff,
v.
EDWINA S. UEHARA, et al., Defendants.

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DENYING PLAINTIFF'S CROSS-MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT

RICARDO S. MARTINEZ, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Dkt. #47) and Plaintiff's Cross-Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. (Dkt. #64). Defendants seek summary dismissal of the claims made against University of Washington President Michael K. Young and University of Washington Director of Claims Shari Spung. Defendants also seek a ruling as to Plaintiff's status as an "at-will" employee, which would resolve Plaintiff's claims that he had a property interest and/or contractual right to the procedures applicable to University Faculty. Dkt. #47. Plaintiff seeks a ruling that he was a "hybrid" employee and therefore could only be terminated for just cause, which also created property and liberty interests in his employment. Dkts. #64 and #70. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment and DENIES Plaintiff's cross-motion for partial summary judgment.

II. BACKGROUND

This lawsuit arises out of the separation of employment of Dr. Olson from the University of Washington. Dr. Olson was employed as an administrator in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington for 27 years until his separation from employment in July 2011. Dkt. #22 at ¶ 14 and Dkt. #61 at 5. From 1997 until his termination he worked at the School of Social Work at the Seattle campus in various capacities, most recently as the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs. Dkt. #22 at ¶ 14. Dr. Olson alleges that he was also a Lecturer and member of the UW faculty during the autumn, winter, and spring quarters from 2008 through 2011. Id. Defendants assert that he was a part-time Lecturer only through the end of winter quarter in March 2011. Dkt. #48 at ¶ 6 and Ex. A.

As Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, Dr. Olson had the ability and authority to register students to receive credit units. Dkt. #22 at ¶ 14. The parties acknowledge that graduate students enrolled in the School of Social Work must complete a certain number of credits to qualify for a graduate degree. The parties also acknowledge that only credits from certain types of courses qualify to be counted toward the requirements for a graduate degree. While "nondegree" credits do not count toward a student's degree, such credits do count for other purposes, such as receiving financial assistance. Id. at ¶ ¶ 14-15.

Defendants allege, and Dr. Olson admits, that over a period of several years, Dr. Olson awarded "non-degree" credits to graduate students on a case-by-case basis, for which they were required to complete no actual work. Dkt. #47 at 2 and Dkt. #22 at ¶ ¶ 26-29. Dr. Olson asserts that he awarded these credits because these students already had intensive workloads and would be unable to receive the funding required to continue their studies if they did not receive the minimum number of credits needed to qualify for financial assistance. Dkt. #22 at ¶ ¶ 26-29. Dr. Olson also asserts that several UW graduate programs have a long-standing practice of awarding "non-degree" credits for field work by allowing the graduate student to register under a separate and unique course number issued by the university Registrar, and that no specific additional work or work product was expected in order to receive a passing grade that awarded credit. Dkt. #22 at ¶ ¶ 26-29.

Dr. Olson claims that the vast majority of graduate students who required such assistance were minority and disabled students. Id. Dr. Olson used his "professional academic judgment" in determining whether the credit units the students were receiving accurately reflected the time they were devoting to the program. Id. After making this assessment, Dr. Olson would then determine if the students would be able to continue their studies without a small number of additional "non-degree" credits. Id. If they would not be able to continue their studies because they lacked the pre-requisite number of credits to qualify for financial aid, Dr. Olson would then allow them to register for the necessary number of units to qualify for aid, typically one to three "non-degree" credits. Id. Credits awarded under these circumstances appeared on students' academic records under the title "Soc W 599B." Id. Dr. Olson alleges that his awarding of such credits was known to Social Work administrators who would refer graduate students to Dr. Olson for that purpose. Id. Dr. Olson further alleges that his practice of awarding graduate students 599B credits was authorized by the University and was consistent and in compliance with all applicable policies of the University, the Graduate School, and the School of Social Work. Dkt. #22 at ¶ 30. Defendants deny the allegations. Dkt. #27 at ¶ ¶ 18-21.

In March of 2011, Dr. Olson desired to publicize on his personal blog the availability of 599B credits for graduate students who needed the credits to remain eligible for financial aid. Dkt. #22 at ¶ ¶ 33-36. He drafted an article about the 599B credits, and then emailed the Office of Financial Aid, to seek guidance on the content of the article. Id. at ¶ ¶ 34-38. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Audits began an audit of Dr. Olson's granting of non-degree credits. Dr. Olson asserts that he fully cooperated with the investigation. Id. at ¶ 40.

On or about June 1, 2011, Executive Director of the Department of Audits Richard Cordova issued a report documenting his findings and sent a copy to Dr. Olson's supervisor, Dr. Edwina Uehara. Id. at ¶ 51. The audit's primary finding was that Dr. Olson had "inappropriately" granted non-degree credits to students who "were not required to perform any work or to earn credit for the class." Id. at ¶ 54. The report also cited a number of sections of the University of Washington Policy Directory, which Dr. Olson had allegedly violated. Id. at ¶ ¶ 57-58. There is a dispute amongst the parties as to whether his awarding of 599B credits actually violated University policy. See generally Dkt. # 22 at ¶ ¶59-68, Dkt. #47 and Dkt. #61.

On July 11, 2011, Dr. Olson attended a meeting at the request of Dr. Uehara. Dkt. #22 at ¶ 80. Dr. Olson alleges that when he arrived to the meeting, several people were already in the room. Id. He further alleges that Dr. Uehara started the meeting by informing him that he was going to be terminated based on the results of the audit. Id. He alleges that she then gave him a choice - resign within 24 hours and he would continue to be paid for one month or he would be terminated immediately. Id. at ¶ ¶ 80-82. Dr. Olson resigned the next day. Id. at ¶ 83.

In February 2012, in response to a public records request, the University of Washington released the audit report. Dkt. # 22 at ¶ 87. Several articles were published in local news media as a result. Id. at ¶ ¶ 87-88. Dr. Olson alleges that he was never provided with notification of the records request or that the audit report would be released publicly. Id.

On July 2, 2012, Dr. Olson sent a letter to President Young requesting "a hearing to challenge the findings and management responses in the University's June 22, 2011 audit report that concerned [him]". Dkt. #49, Ex. A. President Young's Chief of Staff Jack Johnson responded by email July 6, 2012, acknowledging receipt of the letter and stating that the document Dr. Olson wished to challenge was a report, "not an administrative decision" entitled to a hearing. Id., Ex. B. Mr. Johnson continued that the University did not provide a Presidential hearing process to appeal the report, and therefore his request was denied. Id. He further suggested that Dr. Olson provide the auditor with information that might change the auditor's conclusions, even though the report was a year old at that time. Id.

On February 15, 2013, Dr. Olson filed an administration Tort Claim with the University of Washington alleging numerous violations related to his separation of employment. Dkt. #50, Ex. B. On April 16, 2013, Director of Claim Services Shari Spung denied the claim, noting in her letter to Dr. Olson's attorney that "this was a voluntary resignation of Mr. Olson's at-will professional staff position, not a termination or forceful resignation as is characterized in the tort claim. Dkt. #50, Ex. A. The letter was also sent to several unidentified University of Washington employees, which Dr. Olson alleges was for the purpose of negatively influencing potential witnesses in this case. Dkt. #22 at ¶ ¶ 92-94 and Dkt. #34, Ex. D.

In the instant law suit, Dr. Olson alleges, inter alia, that President Young denied him his federal and state constitutional due process rights by refusing to provide him with a "name clearing" hearing. See Dkt. #22 at ¶ ¶ 163, 165, 223-248 and 309-315. Dr. Olson also alleges that the University deprived him of his liberty and property interests without affording him due process. Id. at ¶ ¶ 123-171. In addition, Dr. Olson asserts a defamation claim against Ms. Spung, alleging that the letter she sent containing the statement ...


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