In Branham v. Thomas M. Cooley Law School, No. 10-2305, 2012 WL 3156139 (6th Cir. Aug. 6, 2012), a federal appeals court held that the definition of “tenure” is a matter of contract interpretation. Interpreting a law professor’s contract, the Court refused to read references to “tenure” as a lifetime guarantee of employment when the contract specified a term of just one year.
After Thomas M. Cooley Law School (“Cooley”) terminated her employment as a professor, Lynn Branham sued for damages, claiming her contract gave her tenure. She appealed after a federal district court denied her damages claim. The Sixth Circuit held that although Branham’s contract “refer[red] to the concept of tenure” it did not define tenure as a right of continuous employment. To the contrary, the contract “expressly limit[ed] its term to a single year.” The court reasoned that “[w]hile Branham may have had ‘tenure’ in the sense that she had academic freedom, and that she and Cooley generally expected that they would enter a new employment contract in subsequent years,” nothing in the contract “provide[d] for a term of employment greater than one year.” As a result, the court held Branham was due no more employment protection and process than that specified in her contract.