COA rules for Purdue profs who complained about colleague

After filing a complaint against a coworker who made derogatory remarks toward other professors and the Islamic religion, a group of Purdue University professors have been granted their cross-motion for summary judgment against the coworker, who filed numerous First Amendment claims against them.

During the 2011 spring semester, Purdue University Calumet professor Maurice Eisenstein was teaching an Introduction to Judaism class when a student recorded him making derogatory comments toward Muslims and indicating that Jews had experienced the worst discrimination in history when compared to other groups, such as black or Asian people. Student Wala Issa spoke to the department chair, Professor Richard Rupp, about Eisenstein’s comments and was removed from the class.

Rupp discussed the issue with Eisenstein, who in turn posted a statement on his personal Facebook page calling Issa a “Jew hater.” Then in November 2011, chancellor Thomas Keon received nine complaints against Eisenstein filed by three students, the Muslim Student Association and a group of professors, including Miriam Joyce, Fahima Ali Jackson, Saul Lerner, Kathleen Tobin and Colin Fewer. Lerner and Joyce later filed additional complaints alleging retaliation by Eisenstein, who allegedly made an insensitive comment about Joyce’s son’s suicide and said his mother had put a curse on Lerner.

An investigation determined Eisenstein had retaliated against Joyce and harassed Issa, but after conducting a panel hearing, Keon determined Eisenstein had only breached university policy as it related to the retaliation claims. The chancellor issued a letter of reprimand to Eisenstein.

Eisenstein filed a complaint against the professors who had filed complaints with Keon, Purdue University, Purdue Calumet and Keon in their official and individual capacities, but the Lake Superior Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss that complaint. Meanwhile, after receiving a complaint about a blog Eisenstein had written against a fellow professor, Keon required Eisenstein to remove the link to his blog from his Purdue email signature, but did not regulate the content of the blog.

Eisenstein then filed an amended complaint for declaratory judgment and raised several claims, including violations of his free speech rights under 42 U.S.C. section 1983. Both parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, which the trial court denied to each side. The court also denied the defendants’ motion to strike portions of Eisenstein’s affidavit.

On interlocutory appeal, the defendants argued portions of Eisenstein’s affidavit in which he claims he was targeted for his race, religion and political beliefs should be struck because they contain inadmissible conclusions, rather than personal knowledge. But in a 42-page Monday opinion, Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Michael Barnes said portions of the affidavit that related to Eisenstein’s class enrollment, summer school classes and raises were factual. Thus, the court only partially erred when it denied the motion to strike.

The appellate panel then determined Purdue cannot be sued in state court for damages for federal constitutional violations, such as Eisenstein’s Section 1983 claims. Further, the defendants were entitled to summary judgment in their official capacities because Eisenstein failed to tie his request for declaratory judgment to prospective relief related to his Section 1983 claims.

Next, drawing on precedent from Hartman v. Keri, 883 N.E.2d 774 (Ind. 2008), Barnes said the faculty members were entitled to absolute immunity under the 11th Amendment in their individual capacities. Similarly, because Keon was acting in a quasi-judicial role throughout the complaint process, he was also entitled to absolute immunity, Barnes said.

Following similar logic, the appellate panel found the defendants were entitled to immunity on Eisenstein’s claims under Section 1985(3) in both their individual and official capacities. Finally, the court found Eisenstein failed to prove there was a “concerted action” to deprive him of his rights and reputation and to inflict emotional distress on him.

Thus, the appellate panel determined the Lake Superior Court erred in denying the defendants’ cross-motion for summary judgment on Eisenstein’s numerous claims and reversed the trial court’s judgment on those grounds. However, the decision to deny summary judgment to Eisenstein was affirmed.

The case is Board of Trustees of Purdue University, d/b/a Purdue University and Purdue Calumet, et al., v. Dr. Maurice Eisenstein, 45A04-1612-PL-2728.

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