Appeals court denies former U treasurer review of termination

by Robert Koch

University employees challenging employment decisions must exhaust the school’s internal grievance process before turning to the court system.
So reasoned the Minnesota Court of Appeals in its rejection of former University Treasurer Georgina Stephens’ request for a review of her termination. The decision, released Tuesday, returns the matter squarely to Stephens and her attorney, Karl Oliver.
“(The court) decided very few of the issues that we raised — unfortunately,” Oliver said. “We’re seriously considering seeking review by the Minnesota Supreme Court.”
Last November, University officials stripped Stephens of her fiscal duties and assigned her other work after learning she had declared personal bankruptcy. The Board of Regents voted Feb. 11 to remove Stephens as treasurer.
In rejecting Stephens’ request for a review, the appellate court cited the University’s status under the state’s constitution, arguing that “to allow an employee to circumvent University grievance processes would weaken the University’s constitutional authority.”
University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg called the court’s decision a “complete win for the University.”
“You have to utilize the University’s processes for adjusting disputes before you rush off to the courthouse,” he said.
Stephens initiated the grievance process last fall and was scheduled to meet with President Yudof Dec. 15. But by cancelling that appointment, the court reasoned, Stephens “withdrew from the University’s grievance process before exhausting it.”
Open to all non-union University employees, the process begins with an informal meeting between the parties, followed by a similar meeting with administrators, then a panel hearing, and finally, arbitration. The grievant may withdraw from the process at any point.
Oliver called the entire process voluntary, saying it should not be a prerequisite for judicial review. In particular, he took issue with the arbitration phase, at which point the “grievant waives right to pursue same claim in any other forum.”
The court treated the waiver clause as a hypothetical situation, saying, “Because Stephens failed to exhaust any phase of the University’s grievance process, we do not address whether a party would be precluded from seeking judicial review before exhausting Phase IV arbitration.”
Rotenberg described arbitration as a less-expensive and faster option that is not forced upon the grievant.
“(Stephens) aborted the process well before the arbitration would have started,” Rotenberg said. “I don’t interpret the Court of Appeals decision to require binding arbitration in every case.”
If the Minnesota Supreme Court decides to review the matter, Oliver will also raise the issue of whether the Board of Regents followed its bylaws.
“(Stephens’) duties and authority as treasurer were taken away by President Yudof and Regent Chair Patricia Spence in late November of 1999,” Oliver said. “Under the charter and under the bylaws, (Spence) cannot act unilaterally without all the board.”
Rotenberg, however, said there was no violation of Regents’ bylaws.
“The President and the Board chair can direct what duties Georgina will carry out,” Rotenberg said. “Her duties were changed before (the board meeting), but she remained as treasurer of the University until the board acted.
“There’s a difference between taking someone’s job and someone’s job title away,” he added.

Robert Koch covers police and courts and welcomes comments at [email protected].