Moot court teacher claims her law school position was terminated following complaints to the ABA
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The former director of advocacy at the Mississippi College School of Law claims in a recent federal court filing she was constructively terminated from the position, partially because of what she said about job security for non-tenure track faculty during an ABA site evaluation.
Victoria Lowery Leech, who is white, also claims the law school was obligated to offer her an available position after it terminated her program, but instead a Black candidate was recommended. She alleges ABA concern about the law school’s commitment to diversity figured in with the school’s decision.
Her complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on Oct. 8, alleges wrongful termination, as well as gender and race discrimination.
Under ABA accreditation rules, law schools have comprehensive site visits every 10 years, and reports from the visits are reviewed by the council of the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. Regarding the site visit for the Mississippi College School of Law, the council in August 2020 determined the law school needed to provide information demonstrating that it fostered opportunities for faculty without discrimination based on race or gender, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also claims the council decision stated the law school would clarify the status and position of three full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members. Under Standard 405(c) of the ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools, full-time clinical faculty members are entitled to some form of work security similar to tenure, but the standard does not prohibit a limited number of short-term appointments in a clinical program.
Council decisions like this one do not require public notice, and are confidential, according to Rule 47 of the accreditation standards.
Patricia Bennett is the law school’s dean. Lowery claims Bennett, who is Black, offered 405(c) status positions to two non-white faculty members during 2020, one of whom had less legal writing experience than Lowery.
“Effectively, because Professor Lowery is white and does not satisfy ABA diversity goals, by terminating Professor Lowery and promoting the African American clinical staff member to 405(c) status, the school was able to bring itself into compliance with the ABA’s 405(c) concerns, and was able to make a diverse faculty hire, all without increasing the school’s faculty budget,” the complaint states.
The ABA site visit team visited the law school in 2020. Law school administration assumed Lowery complained to the group and retaliated against her by offering the one-year contract instead of the standard five-year deal, according to the complaint.
Lowery joined the law school in 2005, and was responsible for designing and implementing an upper-division legal writing curriculum, as well as an advanced writing skills course. Her position was non-tenure track, and she was employed on a contract basis. She claims to have received multiple five-year contracts until 2020, when less than a week before school started she was offered a one-year contract and was told it was her last year as director of advocacy for the school.
The complaint alleges Lowery was subject to gender discrimination starting in 2014, after Jonathan Will was named as the law school’s associate dean for research and faculty development. According to the lawsuit, he repeatedly subjected Lowrey to retaliatory conduct and public reprimand if she expressed an opinion contrary to his during faculty meetings, but never did that to male faculty. It also alleges Will would “shriek at female faculty while beating his fists on the table” during meetings.
Additionally, the complaint alleges Will did not afford Lowrey academic freedom, as he did with other faculty, and he caused her to be removed from the legal writing program, only to be replaced by “inexperienced, younger, and cheaper professors.” Will told the ABA Journal in an email he could not comment on pending litigation or personnel matters, as did Bennett.
Lowery determined her position was eliminated when her name was not on the 2021 spring semester course schedule, according to her lawsuit. Bennett acknowledged Lowrey was removed from the teaching schedule and replaced by adjunct professors, but insisted Lowery was still on staff, as a faculty advisor to the school’s moot court board, the complaint states.
The lawsuit alleges Lowery was entitled to having her contract renewed indefinitely until she retired from teaching, under Standard 405(c).
Lindsay Roberts, one of Lowery’s former students, now serves as her lawyer. Roberts says that since the complaint was filed, students, as well as current and former faculty and staff, have told her about alleged harassment and discriminatory conduct at the law school.
“Unfortunately, I anticipate that our claims are just the tip of a very deep iceberg, covered by an ocean of actions taken in an attempt to protect the school from liability. I expect that there will be much more to come as we continue to investigate some of these new claims,” Roberts wrote in an email to the ABA Journal.