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Judgment for ex-Notre Dame prof who stole grant funds reversed

July 12, 2019

A fired Notre Dame professor convicted of a felony for theft of grant money and found to have possessed pornographic images on university computers lost on appeal a judgment in his favor of more than $500,000 in a breach of contract lawsuit against the university.

While employed as an electrical engineering professor at Notre Dame University, Oliver Collins received $266,516 from the National Science Foundation to purchase five pieces of “high speed, mixed signal test equipment” and a computer as part of a grant award. Notre Dame contributed matching funds, and NSF further awarded Collins $240,000 to support another project, which the university also matched.

However, NSF suspended its grants to Collins years later upon discovery that he had used the funds to purchase different equipment for a different purpose than what the grant monies were intended.

Collins received a letter of sanctions and dismissal from the school listing numerous charges, including that he had “used equipment purchased with NSF funds for extensive personal purposes, with negligible if any scientific use of the equipment” and “took and stored sexually explicit and pornographic images using university computing resources.” Several computers that were in Collins’ care and under his responsibility also contained sexually explicit and pornographic images.

A hearing committee selected to review the case consisted of three elected, tenured members of the academic council, including Father John Coughlin, who also participated in informal mediation efforts. The committee ultimately concluded unanimously that Collins should be dismissed for “serious cause” that had been shown by clear and convincing evidence.

Collins was dismissed from the university, and he later pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge arising from his conduct of misusing government grant money. Before his guilty plea, Collins filed a breach of contract suit against Notre Dame, alleging it had breached his contract because the hearing committee’s findings did not meet the definition of “serious cause.”

The Northern District Court granted summary judgment to Collins based on his argument that the university violated the contract’s procedural requirements, finding that Coughlin should have recused himself from his service on the hearing committee. It did not however, determine if there was a serious cause for dismissal, but did find Collins had been wrongfully terminated as a result of the procedural breach.

Northern District Judge Joseph S. Van Bokkelen rejected Notre Dame’s argument that the procedural breach found was not material, awarding Collins $501,367 in damages for lost compensation from the date of his dismissal from Notre Dame until the date of his felony conviction. However, a second hearing committee again unanimously found “serious cause” to dismiss Collins given his guilty plea and the conduct that was the subject of the first adjudication.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s grant of judgment and award of damages to Collins Friday in Oliver Collins v. University of Notre Dame Du Lac, 18-2579, 18-2559.

In addressing the issue of Coughlin’s participation on the hearing committee, the 7th Circuit found that although participation in the informal resolution process may give rise to bias or interest, it does not necessarily do so.

“There is no evidence in the record of any actual bias or interest on the part of Father Coughlin arising from his role in the informal mediation or anything else. As best we can tell, Dr. Collins did not try to prove actual bias on the part of Father Coughlin, whether arising from the brief attempt at mediation or otherwise,” Circuit Judge David F. Hamilton wrote for the panel.

“Accordingly, we conclude that the undisputed facts show that Notre Dame complied with the contractual procedures in Dr. Collins’s adjudication. There was no procedural breach of the contract in the 2010 dismissal,” Hamilton continued. “We must therefore reverse the judgment of the district court, which was based on an erroneous finding of such a procedural breach.”

The 7th Circuit further found serious cause existed for his dismissal in the facts of the case as determined by the hearing committee’s findings, which fall squarely within the Academic Articles’ definition of “serious cause.”

“Given that a felony conviction is listed as an event that constitutes serious cause, we see no room for debate about whether his firing was substantively justified,” the panel added. It thus reversed the district court’s award of judgment and damages to Collins and remanded with instructions to enter judgment in Notre Dame’s favor.

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