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How I Won My Lawsuit Against the University of Colorado


I’ve settled my lawsuit against my employer, the University of Colorado, and Lolita Buckner Inniss, the current dean of the law school, where I’ve been on the faculty for the past 34 years.

In the settlement agreement, the university denies having done anything wrong, but, as always, actions speak louder than words.   In addition to paying all of my legal fees from two years of litigation, the university paid me a substantial sum to not take the case to trial, removed Dean Inniss as my supervisor for whatever time may be left in her tenure as Dean, and made various other concessions regarding the conditions of my employment going forward.

Too often, the details of this kind of story are never told because of a non-disclosure agreement, which is something I wasn’t willing to consider.  So this is going to be something of a deep dive into the process of suing one’s lifetime employer, and I will tell that story in three separate posts. 

Part I of the story describes the sheer absurdity of a law school dean who claims to be an expert on discrimination in America responding to a report of such discrimination from a faculty member by insisting something like that couldn’t be happening at the institution she had arrived at eleven months earlier.  It lays out the astonishing professional incompetence Lolita Buckner Inniss displayed when she retaliated against me in such a blatant way that my own lawyer was literally incredulous when I told him about it, because he was certain no lawyer could ever be so careless as to send the self-damning email that the Dean sent me.  That documented retaliation made both this lawsuit and its costly resolution possible.

Part II is about how bureaucratic mechanisms, such as peer review committees, can be co-opted to shield from public view discrimination based on petty personal grudges, and clearly illegal sex discrimination.

Part III is about the consequences for someone inside a major research university when he tries to bring the gross financial mismanagement of his own school within that university to the attention of central university administrators, whose own negligence has allowed that mismanagement to go on for many years.

The last thing I wanted to do in the spring of 2022 was file a lawsuit, for the same reason, I suppose, that somebody in an old-style Catholic marriage doesn’t want to get into a relationship-wrecking fight with their spouse: Nobody is going anywhere, so why can’t we be friends?

The answer is that sometimes you have to fight, because the alternative is worse.

The alternative here would have been, after asking the Dean for the most minimal gesture of good will, and being told in the most explicit possible terms that none would be forthcoming, to tolerate this mistreatment as the price of not challenging the university’s administrators, who needless to say would fire me instantly if they thought they could get away with it.  (Anyone who doubts the continuing salience of tenure should consider the consequences for internal institutional criticism in academia if people like me didn’t have robust employment rights).

That wasn’t a price I was willing to pay.


                                  HOW NOT TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE

In retrospect, the most striking thing about this lawsuit is that Lolita Buckner Inniss could have avoided the whole thing at a cost of exactly zero dollars to the law school and the university, if she had spent ten minutes doing her job when I asked her to do it in May of 2022.  That’s when I asked her to review the recommendation of a peer review committee, that had given me a bad annual review even though I had had an excellent year in terms of all conventional metrics of evaluation.  This she flatly refused to do, even though doing such a review is one of the very few formally mandated tasks of her half million dollar per year job.

When I told her I thought the bad review could be a product of illegal discrimination, and that I might be forced to take legal action as a result, she told me she didn’t think the University of Colorado Law School was “that kind of place,” so she wasn’t going to investigate my claims.  Such an investigation is something she was legally required to undertake as matter of state and federal law.  (Dean Inniss’s academic specialty is Critical Race Theory).   She concluded our conversation by telling me that she was, in her words, “not afraid of litigation.”

Two years later, here we are.

Now at a less dysfunctional university, this level of sheer administrative incompetence combined with open contempt for following the law would get a law school dean reassigned to a position where she could do less institutional damage, but I guess for the moment at least the University of Colorado isn’t that kind of place.

And all this was just the beginning of Dean Inniss’s professional ineptitude while (not) handling this matter.

Employment discrimination law in this country is extremely defendant-friendly.  It’s usually very hard for plaintiffs to prove that bad treatment from their employers was a product of illegal motives, and it’s also difficult in these cases to prove that the employer is liable for enough damages to make these cases worth pursuing.  And of course people don’t want to sue their employers because they want to keep their jobs.

Because of academic tenure, I’m in an unusually privileged position in regard to the last factor, but like most employees who sue their employers for discrimination, I was still going to have trouble proving that I was being treated badly for illegal as opposed to legal reasons, and to prove just what damages I’d incurred as a result.

This is where Dean Inniss inadvertently came to my legal rescue. She engaged in a series of egregious retaliatory acts after my lawyer sent the university a letter putting it on notice that we were considering filing a lawsuit.  First, she kicked me off an important committee that I had worked to get assigned to precisely because remaining on it was critical to my professional advancement.  In an email she told me she was kicking me off the committee because I was complaining about being discriminated against.  After I complained to her about this retaliation, she removed me from teaching a class because I was purportedly making racist and sexist statements in that class.  My lawyer then let the university know that the law school had complete recordings of the class in question, which we had reviewed in detail, and which no one at the law school had ever even looked at.  This pretty much put an end to that rationale, and revealed it for what it was: a libelous pretext for continuing to punish me for having reported the dean’s discrimination in the first place.

Finally, the dean proceeded to file a complaint against me with the university’s Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, because I had, on the advice of a colleague, a two-minute phone conversation with the head of the Latino Law Students Association about concerns I and others had raised about the dean’s treatment of Latino students, faculty, and staff. 

I learned about Dean Inniss’s attempt to abuse the OEIC process in this way via discovery, since OIEC knew I was perfectly within my rights to raise such concerns, and therefore did not initiate an investigation against me.  (OIEC is currently in what is now the 21st month of its ongoing investigation of Dean Inniss’s conduct toward me: an investigation that has already produced a 200-page evidentiary report, and that is not affected by the settlement of my lawsuit.)

The practical result of all these retaliatory acts was that the university was going to have to pay all the legal fees incurred during the litigation, which included not only my own, but those racked up by the expensive private lawyer the university hired to represent the Dean, to avoid the conflicts of interest that could arise if she were represented by the university’s lawyers.  (Retaliating against someone for complaining about discrimination makes the defendant legally liable for the consequences of that retaliation, without regard to the merits of the original complaint).

In other words, the dean of the University of Colorado’s law school’s failure to adhere to the tenets of Employment Discrimination Law 101 – don’t retaliate against someone who is complaining about discrimination – put the university in a fundamentally untenable position in regard to the litigation.   And now the university’s leadership has recognized that implicitly, by permanently removing Dean Inniss from her position as my supervisor.  Why that leadership continues to allow Lolita Buckner Inniss to supervise my colleagues is a question that at least some of them might want to start asking in a more public way.

Part Two of this story will be posted tomorrow.

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