Session Date: November 16, 2016
Appeal from the Chancery Court for Davidson County No.
15-506-III Ellen H. Lyle, Chancellor
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
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.
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.,
BRANDON O. GIBSON, JUDGE
Facts & Procedural History
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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."
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
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.
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.
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
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:
to various reports, you made threatening statements quoted
below, or substantially similar to the statements quoted
. 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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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 ...