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Yen v. University of Tennessee Knoxville

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

March 21, 2017


          Session Date: November 16, 2016

         Direct Appeal from the Chancery Court for Davidson County No. 15-506-III Ellen H. Lyle, Chancellor

         This is an appeal of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's termination of a tenured faculty member. After the University terminated Appellant, he appealed the validity of his termination to an administrative hearing officer pursuant to the Tennessee Uniform Administrative Procedures Act. Following a contested hearing, the hearing officer upheld the University's termination of Appellant. Appellant then petitioned the chancery court to reverse the decision of the hearing officer. The chancery court held that there was substantial and material evidence in the record to support the hearing officer's decision to affirm the termination of Appellant's employment and tenure. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm the judgment of the chancery court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed and Remanded

          Jerrold Lance Becker and Emily Kathryn Stulce, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Steven Yen.

          Frank Hilton Lancaster, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, University of Tennessee Knoxville.

          Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., joined.



         I. Facts & Procedural History

         Appellant, Dr. Steven Yen ("Dr. Yen"), was born and raised in Taiwan, where he studied English for seven years. Dr. Yen then immigrated to the United States in 1980 and has been a citizen of the United States since 1997. Prior to his employment with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (the "University"), Dr. Yen held faculty positions at multiple reputable institutions across the country.[1] Dr. Yen was hired by the University in 2002 as an associate professor of agricultural economics and became a full professor at the University in 2011. Dr. Yen is a prolific author with an impressive curriculum vitae, publishing more than 100 refereed journal articles, several book chapters and research reports, and making over 110 presentations at conferences. Dr. Yen's employment as a tenured professor with the University continued until September 16, 2013.

         The history of this case includes a lengthy cast of characters within the ranks of the University's administration, so a brief overview of those involved is necessary. Dr. Yen's direct supervisor at the University was Dr. Delton Gerloff, who served as the Department Head of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Because Dr. Yen's position at the University split his workload between research and teaching, he was also under the authority of both Dean William Brown (Dean for Research), and Dean Caula Beyl (Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, who oversees teaching). Dean Brown and Dean Beyl both report directly to Dr. Larry Arrington, who is the Chancellor for the University's Institute of Agriculture. Two of Dr. Yen's closest friends and colleagues at the University were Dr. John Riley and Dr. Harwood Schaffer.

         In April 2012, Dr. Yen received his performance review for the 2011 academic year (the "2011 Review"), which rated his performance as "Needs Improvement." Some of the reasons given for this evaluation were Dr. Yen's deficiencies in receiving grants and his struggle to maintain collegiality with his co-workers, including his "tendency to challenge and demean colleagues' work and ideas." The narrative portion of the 2011 Review was written by Dr. Yen's supervisor, Dr. Gerloff. After receiving his performance review, Dr. Yen met with Dr. Gerloff to discuss the evaluation. Dr. Yen then appealed his 2011 Review to Dean Brown and Dean Beyl, who denied the appeal in July 2012.

         Shortly after the appeal of his 2011 Review was denied, Dr. Yen expressed that he was having suicidal ideations to his friend and colleague, Dr. Schaffer, stating: "One day you are going to come in and find me hanging from that door up there." Dr. Schaffer was concerned and reported Dr. Yen's statement about hanging himself to Dr. Gerloff, who then contacted the department's human resources office. Thereafter, some of Dr. Yen's colleagues decided to intervene and encouraged Dr. Yen to seek medical attention for his apparent depression. This support group for Dr. Yen included Dr. Schaffer, Dr. Riley, and Julie Goldman, an administrative assistant in the department. Dr. Yen heeded the advice of the group and obtained professional help from a psychiatrist, Dr. Arun Jethanandani, and a therapist, Mr. Colvin Idol. During his initial session with Dr. Jethanandani on July 14, 2012, Dr. Yen admitted once again to suicidal ideations and expressed homicidal ideations as well. Dr. Yen stated that he "felt mistreated" by the University and that "it upsets me so much that I think about hanging myself or them." Later that month, on July 27, 2012, Dr. Yen sent an email to Dr. Riley with a link to a story about a man who was seeing a psychiatrist but had nonetheless shot and killed several people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. In the body of his email, Dr. Yen wrote to Dr. Riley that the story was "something I could relate [to], which was a little scary." Between 2012 and 2013, Dr. Yen's support group began to fracture due to a disagreement between Dr. Riley and Dr. Schaffer, which resulted in Dr. Yen refusing to speak to Dr. Schaffer.

         In 2013, Dr. Yen was again evaluated by Dr. Gerloff, this time for the 2012 academic year (the "2012 Review"), and he received a rating of "Meets Expectations". This was an improvement over Dr. Yen's 2011 Review, but Dr. Yen was dissatisfied with the evaluation and once again appealed to Dean Brown and Dean Beyl. On Wednesday, September 4, 2013, Dr. Yen received a letter from Dean Brown and Dean Beyl denying the appeal of his 2012 Review. Later that day, Dr. Yen went to Dr. Riley's office and spoke with him there.[2] Julie Goldman testified that within a day or two of Dr. Yen's meeting with Dr. Riley, Dr. Riley came to her and he was "shaking like a leaf." Dr. Riley told Ms. Goldman that he was "very worried about Dr. Yen, " and that Dr. Yen had made statements to him to the effect that he was going to "get a gun and kill these guys, " and that he was going to "get an axe and chop them down the middle." Ms. Goldman, who had been a member of Dr. Yen's support group, stated that this statement by Dr. Yen "was far more graphic than the normal conversation from someone that was frustrated."

         On Friday, September 6, 2013, Ms. Goldman told Dr. Gerloff that she was afraid that Dr. Yen might "go postal." Dr. Gerloff testified that he assumed that Ms. Goldman meant that Dr. Yen might injure someone in the department. Dr. Schaffer also discussed Dr. Yen's statements with Dr. Gerloff. On that same day, Dr. Gerloff reported Dr. Yen's alleged statements to Dean Brown. Dean Brown then spoke with Dr. Riley and Dr. Schaffer about the substance and context of Dr. Yen's statements. Dean Brown also contacted Chancellor Arrington regarding Dr. Yen's statements, and the two agreed that Dr. Yen should be placed on paid administrative leave.

         The following Monday, September 9, 2013, Dean Brown and Dean Beyl met with Dr. Yen to place him on paid administrative leave, specifically informing Dr. Yen in writing that:

University officials will be reviewing reports that you made threatening statements including threats of physical violence in the workplace. Please be assured that while the University takes seriously any potential threat, UTPD [University of Tennessee Police Department] and other officials will also take your statement, and will review any information you may choose to offer related to these possible threats.

         The same day, UTPD officials met with Dr. Yen to discuss the threatening statements he was alleged to have made to Dr. Riley, specifically that he supposedly said: "Maybe I should go get a gun, maybe I should shoot them, or maybe I should get an axe and I'll chop them right through the middle." This information had been reported to UTPD by Dr. Riley, who said that the previous week Dr. Yen had been "livid" and said: "I'm going to get a gun and kill these guys. I'm going to get an axe and chop them down the middle." However, Dr. Riley subsequently sent emails to Dean Beyl stating that he did not believe anyone was in danger and that Dr. Riley had made similar statements over the years and had not resulted to violence.

         Throughout the week of September 9, 2013, while Dr. Yen was on paid administrative leave, the University and UTPD continued to investigate the matter. On September 11, 2013, Dr. Yen spoke with Dr. Gerloff by telephone and attempted to plead his case, stating that "he did not make any public threats, " but that he was simply venting to Dr. Riley in the privacy of his office. In his notes from September 12, 2013, Dr. Gerloff wrote that there were "concerns among faculty and staff that there is an element of risk with [Dr. Yen] coming on campus and harming people, " and that Dr. Gerloff did believe that to be a real possibility. Later in the week, Chancellor Arrington spent approximately three hours in a meeting with Dr. Gerloff, Dean Brown, Dean Beyl, Mary Lucal of the University's human resources department, UTPD Chief Troy Lane, and University Assistant General Counsel Lela Young, wherein he interviewed individuals about Dr. Yen's statements, and the group debated whether or not termination of Dr. Yen's employment was appropriate. As a result of this meeting, Chancellor Arrington determined that Dr. Yen's statements violated the University's Code of Conduct, which states that using "threatening language" is misconduct constituting adequate cause for termination of a tenured faculty member's employment. Chancellor Arrington further decided that it was appropriate to pursue the "expedited termination procedure" set forth in the University's Faculty Handbook, which provides for an accelerated process to terminate a faculty member when there is "alleged misconduct involving . . . credible threats of harm to a person." Chancellor Arrington then met with the University System President and the Faculty Senate President who both supported his decision to pursue the expedited termination of Dr. Yen.

          Pre-Termination (Loudermill) Hearing and Termination

         On Monday, September 16, 2013, Dr. Yen met with Chancellor Arrington, Dean Brown, and UTPD Chief Lane in a UTPD conference room. This meeting was filmed, and the videotape of the meeting was later admitted into evidence at Dr. Yen's contested hearing. At the beginning of the meeting, Chancellor Arrington informed Dr. Yen that the purpose of the meeting was to advise him of the charges against him and give him an opportunity to respond to them. To that end, Chancellor Arrington gave Dr. Yen written and oral notice of the following charges:

         According to various reports, you made threatening statements quoted below, or substantially similar to the statements quoted below:

. That you were so angry [you] wanted to "take a hatchet to [Dr. Gerloff] and others['] heads and watch them split open (with hand motions)."
. ["]I'm going to get an axe and chop them down the middle."
. ["]I'm going to get a gun and kill these guys."

         Chancellor Arrington then asked Dr. Yen if he had anything to say that might refute these charges. Dr. Yen spoke for approximately thirty minutes in an attempt to defend himself, wavering back and forth about whether he actually made the statements at all, and that if he did make them, what he may have meant. Dr. Yen ultimately admitted to saying that he was going to chop someone down the middle with an axe, but he insisted that this statement was being taken out of context and that the miscommunication was due to his misunderstanding of idiomatic speech in the English language.

         At the end of this meeting, Chancellor Arrington told Dr. Yen that nothing he heard that day made him believe that Dr. Yen did not make the threats he was alleged to have made. Chancellor Arrington then told Dr. Yen that it was with a heavy heart that he was going to have to terminate him but that he had to consider the safety of those around him. At the end of the meeting, Chancellor Arrington gave Dr. Yen a second letter notifying him that his employment was being terminated immediately for making credible threats of harm to University employees, which constituted adequate cause for termination of his tenure and employment.

         Post-Termination (TUAPA) Hearing

         On September 19, 2013, Dr. Yen requested a hearing to contest his termination pursuant to the Tennessee Uniform Administrative Procedures Act ("TUAPA"), which was authorized by the University's Faculty Handbook (the "post-termination hearing"). The post-termination hearing was held over the course of two days, June 11 and July 9, 2014, at the University. Jennifer Richter ("Hearing Officer") was designated to preside over the contested hearing. Both the University and Dr. Yen were represented by counsel. In addition to members of the University's faculty and administration, Dr. Yen and several of his mental health professionals testified at the post-termination hearing.

         After taking the matter under advisement, on January 22, 2015, the Hearing Officer issued a 29-page Initial Order, consisting of 77 Findings of Fact and a thorough analysis of her Conclusions of Law. The Initial Order stated:

After weighing and evaluating all of the evidence presented for the hearing of this matter, I conclude that the University met its burden of proof. As I explain below, I find that Dr. Yen used threatening language and by using such threatening language violated the Faculty Handbook and the University's Code of Conduct for its employees.

         In support of this conclusion, the Hearing Officer found the following, as summarized below:

■ Dr. Yen did make the threats he was alleged to have made as set forth in Chancellor Arrington's letter dated September 16, 2013.
■ These threats were credible, although whether they were credible or not only mattered for purposes of determining whether an expedited termination process could be used as opposed to the standard termination process.
■ Dr. Yen's denial of making these statements was not credible. Dr. Yen's own mental health professionals confirmed that Dr. Yen had mentioned ...

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