Five years after Ron Kramer filed suit against Southern Oregon University claiming his civil rights were violated after his ouster from Jefferson Public Radio, an appellate court has ruled in favor of the university. The court said the former SOU president’s correspondence with the board never directly accused Kramer of wrongdoing, drawing to a close Kramer’s largest claim in a lawsuit that originally sought $1.375 million.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Kramer, whose annual contract with the university as executive director of JPR was not renewed in June 2012 after 37 years in the position, was not explicitly accused of “stigmatizing charges” by former SOU President Mary Cullinan, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Medford.
At issue was a document Cullinan circulated to the JPR Foundation Board from the university’s lawyer during the dispute over the way JPR and the foundation were structured, according to a mandate filed by appeals court Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson.
Kramer argued that the following language in the letter was stigmatizing: “Nor do we see a clear path to indemnity. Article X of the bylaws forbids indemnification for actions taken in bad faith or through willful misconduct. If any actions of Mr. Kramer or the Foundation’s directors (including past actions and the adoption of the Proposed Resolutions) are determined to have been made in bad faith or through willful misconduct, neither Mr. Kramer nor the Foundation’s directors will be entitled to indemnification, and they are unlikely to be entitled to protection under the directors’ and officers’ liability insurance.”
In December 2014, U.S. District Judge Owen Panner ruled that “the clear implication of this passage is that SOU believed that Kramer had engaged in willful misconduct or acted in bad faith and that, as a consequence, he had no ‘clear path’ to indemnity.”
Rawlinson disagreed, ruling that Kramer was not denied due process with a name-clearing hearing after his ouster because the claims Cullinan circulated only touched on what the law firm said were uninsurable risks.
“The difficulty with Kramer’s argument is that the letter stopped far short of actually imputing bad faith, willful misconduct, intentional acts, waste or fraud to Kramer,” Rawlinson writes. “Rather, the letter stated that if the actions were later determined to constitute bad faith or willful misconduct, insurance coverage would not be available.”
Panner dismissed the bulk of Kramer’s other claims in 2014, such as a claim of blacklisting, and lost wages and breach-of-contract totaling $100,000. The appellate ruling denies Kramer’s $1.275 million claim seeking reinstatement, clearing of his name and non-economic damages.
A May 11 hearing will be held in U.S. District Court in Eugene with Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin about whether to settle the case in SOU and Cullinan’s favor, court filings show.
Kramer’s suit followed a contentious battle with the university board related to Kramer’s dual roles as executive director of JPR and JPR Foundation.
Cullinan and the university grew concerned about the structure of the foundation, which co-owns JPR with the university, because of the foundation’s engagement in costly capital projects, including the renovation of the Holly Theatre in Medford, according to court documents.
Kramer filed the suit in January 2013 against SOU, the Oregon University System and Cullinan, among other named individuals.
Kramer was given notice March 23, 2012, that his position “may not be renewed for the upcoming 2012-2013 fiscal year.” A grievance hearing committee advised Kramer be given 90 days’ salary and benefits because of the “equivocal phrasing,” court documents say, though the committee also ruled that university policy didn’t require a reason for nonrenewal of a contract.
Cullinan left SOU in 2014 to become president of Eastern Washington University.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.