Former Faculty Member Seeks New Trial in Political Discrimination Suit

12/28/2012 / Andrew D. Moran

A closely-watched discrimination suit in Iowa may have ended in a mistrial, but may lead to an expansion of employer liability based on political viewpoint discrimination. Teresa Wagner, a University of Iowa faculty member, sued Carolyn Jones, the former dean of the University of Iowa College of Law. Wagner’s lawsuit, filed in 2009, alleged that she was the victim of political discrimination and was denied equal protection under the law when the university denied her a full-time teaching position because of her conservative political views and her work with certain conservative groups that oppose same sex marriage rights and abortion. According to Wagner, the job was ultimately given to a less qualified candidate. The university denied that Wagner’s politics played any role in the hiring decisions and argued that Wagner was being considered for the job until she, during her interview, mishandled questions on how she planned to teach legal analysis if hired to the position. 

A jury found that Carolyn Jones had not discriminated against Wagner due to her political beliefs, and a mistrial was declared on Wagner’s equal protection claim. However, several jurors stated in interviews that they did not accept the university’s explanation for its actions and believed Wagner had been denied the full-time position because of her conservative political views. According to several jurors, the jury believed that Wagner had been discriminated against by the university, but they believed that the university itself, and not the former dean, was responsible for the discrimination.
The jurors were in disagreement on the question of whether Wagner could be hired by the dean absent the vote of the faculty. As such, the jurors felt that the university itself, rather than Carolyn Jones, should have been named as the responsible party in the lawsuit. However, under federal law, Wagner was unable to name the University as a defendant. 
The case highlights a remedial disparity for faculty members of state universities who believe they have been victims of political discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act permits lawsuits against state universities that discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. However, Title VII does not provide protection from discrimination on the basis of political discrimination. As a result, Wagner’s lawsuit was based on Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which allows claims against state actors, including universities, for the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws. However, because of sovereign immunity, the university could not be sued for damages, and Wagner was only able to bring an action against Carolyn Jones personally.
Wagner’s attorney, Steve Fieweger, has stated that the law effectively allows the university to shift responsibility for its actions, and a second trial would provide an opportunity to make it clear to jurors why the university was not named as a defendant.