Disclaimers & Promissory Estoppel
Imagine that, rather than because of his speech, but for no reason at all, University of Illinois Chancellor Wise decided not to present Prof. Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees. Also assume that the facts are as they’ve been publicly described – there is no documented backchannel communication assuring that the appointment was a “rubber stamp,” and the Board had no knowledge of the offer’s existence before the summer. Finally, assume that the Illinois Chancellor has not failed to forward on a hiring proposal to the Trustees since, say, 2010.
These assumptions strip away the political and constitutional questions,* and leave us with a clean problem: does an express reservation of authority in an offer of employment make it unreasonable to rely on it, where the current institutional practice is for such authority to be confirmed later? Dorf thinks “no.” I, and Steven Lubet, think “yes.”
In my first post, I cited a number of cases in which promissory estoppel claims by prospective faculty members under circumstances like these were denied, including some that rested on the conclusion that the ultimate authority lay with the Board of Trustees. This post continues that research. I have found no cases directly on point in Illinois. Nor have I found a single case outside of Haviland v. Simmons where a plaintiff successfully asserted a PE claim under these circumstances. In addition to the cases I cited in the original post, see also Drake v. Medical College of Ohio, 120 Ohio App.3d 493 (1997) (representation by college president that a faculty member would be hired and trustees would be a “rubber stamp” didn’t give rise to PE Claim); Broderick v. Catholic University, 365 F. Supp. 147 (D.D.C. 1973) (representation of prospective wage equality in president’s letter not reasonably reliable in light of several factors, including reservation of power to Trustees). Of the dozen or so cases I have found in this vein, Oja v. Blue Mountain Community College, 2004 WL 1119886 (D. Ore. 1994) comes closest to the Salaita facts:
“Defendants argue that McCarrell, the interim president, stated in the June 18, 2002 letter to plaintiff that McCarrell would recommend that the Board agree to employ plaintiff. I agree with defendants that a close reading of the letter and the contract show that McCarrell did not agree to employ plaintiff but rather stated that he would recommend that the Board employ plaintiff. This is indicated by contract’s blank signature line for the Chair of the Board.
Plaintiff knew that Board approval was legally required, but argues that this as a mere formality. Plaintiff cites alleged statements by Shea to the effect that the job was secure, which Shea denies. Assuming Shea did make such statements, casual or unauthorized comments cannot create a binding employment agreement. See Butler v. Portland General Elec. Co., 748 F.Supp. 783, 792 (D.Or.1990), aff’d sub nom. Flynn v. Portland General Elec. Co.,958 F.2d 377 (9th Cir.1992) (table, text in Westlaw). The promissory estoppel claim fails because it was not reasonable for plaintiff to believe that he had a binding contract with Blue Mountain based on McCarrell’s statement that McCarrell would recommend plaintiff’s employment to the Board.”
Now this isn’t precisely on point. The letter to Salaita did offer employment, subject to the condition listed. So it’s a better case for reliance than Oja. But the similarities are otherwise striking, including the alleged side representations of security. There is also a line of cases in which general disclaimers of intent to contract in university policies defeat promissory estoppel claims. See Ishibashi v. Gonzaga University, 101 Wash. App. 1078 (2000). That said, contract authorities (like Farnsworth and Perillo) state that some courts have given promissory estoppel relief notwithstanding disclaimers of intent to be bound, especially where the disclaimers are general (in an employment manual) and the promises specific. There’s a case like this in every casebook, and they tend to turn on how unjust the conduct ends up feeling. See, e.g., Spooner v. Reserve Life Ins. Co., 47 Wash. 2d 454, 287 P.2d 735 (Wash. 1955) (denying relief).
Given this caselaw, and the general trend against promissory estoppel I earlier identified, the best thing that Salaita would have going for him – in the unlikely event that he were to litigated in federal or state court** – are the side representations and academic custom. The question of whether parol evidence is barred in PE cases is notoriously complex. In Illinois, PE can’t defeat the statute of frauds, and it would be a further complex issue to decide whether the writing – which is not signed by the ultimate authority to be charged – satisfies the statute, as Larry Cunningham has pointed out. My own gestalt is that the side representations would not be admissible,though if they were in writing they might be more likely to color the court’s analysis.
As for custom and practice, I agree with everyone who has said it is relevant. But, as a district court stated in dismissing evidence of custom of providing a six year tenure clock,
“Custom is an area of contract law through which the courts must travel prudently. Only upon a clear showing of custom, nigh universally understood, should a court impose obligations based on custom . . . This Court will not enforce contractual obligations based on a custom which at best finds only tenuous support in the facts.” Marwill v. Baker, 499 F.Supp. 560 (D. Mich. 1980).
**Mike Dorf’s assumption that federal courts will exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the promissory estoppel claim assumes that the University of Illinois isn’t immune under sovereign immunity. Cf. Kaimowitz v. Board of Trustees of Univ. of Illinois, 951 F.2d 765 (7th Cir.1991) (holding that it is immune unless certain exceptions are met). I think this issue would turn on whether the PE recovery is seen as a “present claim” or not, but I’m not an expert.