Albany County District Court Judge Tori Kricken ruled in favor of the University of Wyoming in a lawsuit filed by Donna Bliss, a professor and former head of UW’s social work division.
Kricken decided Bliss’s case will not be allowed to go to trial, instead awarding a summary judgment in favor of UW on all claims from Bliss.
“Obviously I am disappointed, but not surprised,” Bliss said. “From a legal point of view, it’s not a level playing field. … I’m not sure what my next course of action is. I think I have some bases for appealing.”
Bliss was removed from her post in 2015, a move by former health sciences dean Joseph Steiner that Bliss claims was retaliatory.
While Bliss’s tenure helming the social work division was technically at-will, she said there was an implied contract with Steiner.
After being removed from her position in 2015, Bliss filed a lawsuit earlier this year.
When Bliss was hired to run the social work division, Steiner directed her to “turn this division around and to put it on a firm foundation academically.”
That included giving unfavorable performance reviews to two faculty members.
When Bliss did, she faced significant backlash and Steiner later pulled support after Bliss protested the manner in which an investigation was conducted concerning those performance reviews.
Bliss said her firing was done in retaliation for that protest, but Kricken noted a survey of her division conducted immediately before her firing found overwhelmingly poor morale.
Kricken said UW has presented “appropriate evidence and a cogent argument to demonstrate that Dr. Bliss was removed due to her poor performance, as evidenced in part by the results of the work climate survey and Dr. Bliss’s conduct.”
Regardless of Steiner’s reason for firing Bliss, Kricken noted the terms of her appointment were contingent on “need and job performance.”
“Clearly, Dr. Bliss’s appointment was at-will and thus, she was subject to removal from the position for any reasons, or no reason at all, with no legal consequence,” Kricken said.
Bliss had also argued the 2015 investigation against her violated university policy.
Even if that were true, Kricken said, Bliss has said been “unable to demonstrate … the violation of university policy rose to the level of removal for an ‘illegal’ reason.”
“The university is not precluded from investigating a complaint of retaliation by a faculty member merely because there was no regulation or formal policy governing such complaints,” Kricken said. “The university has the authority to manage its internal affairs as implied by the express grant of constitutional and statutory authority.”
Despite urging Bliss to have greater oversight of social work faculty, Steiner withdrew support after his request led to backlash against Bliss.
“I hired her as a division head into a division that has suffered from lack of leadership for a number of years and had become dysfunctional,” Steiner wrote in a February 2015 performance review. “I am asking her to turn this division around and to put it on a firm foundation academically. … I (was) aware that this may cause some hard feelings from some faculty members within the division. We knew they would vote on any future promotion decisions and we have concerns Dr. Bliss could be placed in an untenable position. Turning the division around is requiring a fair amount of energy and time, probably more than either Dr. Bliss or I anticipated.”
When Bliss gave two “problematic faculty members” unfavorable annual reviews, they accused Bliss of retaliating.
A investigation was then conducted by David Jones, then vice president for academic affairs. Jones is now the interim dean of the College of Health Sciences.
In May 2015, College of Education associate dean Suzanne Young produced a first report on the retaliation claims against Bliss. In that report, she found that Bliss had not retaliated against either Dole-Izzo or Kempson.
However, she later produced a second report in July 2015, finding Bliss retaliated against both.
After Bliss produced more evidence, a third report the next month indicated Bliss retaliated against one, but not the other.
When Bliss challenged the process and the findings, Jones reversed Young’s findings in a Sept. 30 letter.
After conducting a survey of the division’s morale, Steiner removed Bliss from her post.
“I trusted a dean to address a long-standing personnel problem that happened under his watch,” Bliss told the Laramie Boomerang. “I don’t regret doing it, but he threw me under the bus.”
Bliss said her experience is indicative of a cultural problem at UW that prevents the university from hiring good people.
“If they know that they could get removed at any time, why would they ever come,” she said.
“It’s a function of upper leadership that allows these things to happen. … It was swept under the rug and the university will not learn from this.”