Thursday, November 16, 2023
Professor's lawsuit may prevail against Harvard Business School.

Professor’s lawsuit may prevail against Harvard Business School.

Title: The Breach of Contract Allegation in the Francesca Gino Case Deserves Attention

Introduction:
After behavioral researcher Francesca Gino was accused of data fraud, she was put on a two-year, unpaid leave by Harvard Business School. Gino responded by filing a 100-page lawsuit, vehemently denying any wrongdoing. While some critics have dismissed her claims, one assertion in her lawsuit highlights a significant concern: Gino argues that Harvard’s treatment of her breaches her employment contract. This particular allegation deserves attention due to its potential implications for academic tenure and employment practices more broadly.

The Allegation:
Among the 12 separate counts in Gino’s lawsuit, ranging from defamation to sex discrimination to violation of privacy, her claim that Harvard breached her contract has received little attention. While I am not taking sides on the exact nature of Gino’s data analysis or her claim of gender bias in disciplinary actions, I find it important to specifically focus on her allegation that Harvard’s actions contravene the university’s own rules for handling accusations of errors and misrepresentations in faculty research.

Understanding the Importance:
To comprehend the significance of this allegation, it is essential to consider employment law. In general, most employer-employee relationships fall under the “at-will” doctrine, allowing either party to terminate the relationship for any reason. However, there are exceptions, such as anti-discrimination laws or the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. Gino’s claim of breach of contract revolves around the notion that academic tenure constitutes an employment contract for an indefinite term, subject to certain behavior expectations.

Historically, dismissing a tenured professor was deemed extraordinary, but this has changed over time. Nowadays, numerous tenured faculty members have lost their positions due to various allegations, including misconduct or budgetary reasons. Occasionally, such dismissals are veiled attempts to remove faculty members with unpopular ideological views, which violates academic freedom. While tenure is not absolute job security, many believe that punishments for tenured faculty should only be applied in exceptional circumstances.

Gino’s argument centers on the claim that Harvard failed to follow its own internal rules and processes when disciplining her. Allegedly, the university created a new process solely for her case and then failed to adhere to the established regulations. Whether Harvard respected its own rules or not is a straightforward matter, making the breach of contract allegation worth investigating further. If Gino’s claims are proven true, Harvard may lose the case or opt for a settlement.

Conclusion:
While Gino’s critics remain steadfast in their opposition, the focus should not be on their response but rather on the breach of contract issue that could affect a broader audience. Regardless of the outcome of this lawsuit, the takeaway for employers is clear: adherence to internal processes before disciplining or terminating employees is crucial. Failing to follow established procedures can expose companies to legal challenges, even in an “at-will” employment framework. Ultimately, the outcomes of this case will have implications for the future handling of similar situations in various professional contexts.

Note: The opinion expressed in this commentary is solely that of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a law professor at Yale University.

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