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Miller v. Mearns

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Covington

April 23, 2015

GEOFFREY S. MEARNS, et al., Defendants.


DAVID L. BUNNING, District Judge.

This is a § 1983 action brought by Plaintiff Charles E. Miller ("Miller") against Northern Kentucky University ("NKU" or the "University") and three of its employees, both individually and in their official capacities. Miller alleges violations of his right to procedural due process based on the manner in which NKU terminated his employment. He also brings a state law claim for breach of contract. The Court has original jurisdiction over the § 1983 claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

I. Factual and Procedural Background

1. The Parties

NKU is a state university of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. (Doc. # 5 at 2, ¶ 2). At all times relevant to this matter, Defendant Gregory S. Mearns ("Mearns") was NKU's President; Defendant Kenneth R. Ramey ("Ramey") was NKU's Vice President of Administration and Finance; and Defendant Lori Southwood ("Southwood") was NKU's Senior Director of Human Resources (Mearns, Ramey, Southwood and NKU referred to collectively as "Defendants"). (Id. at 2, ¶¶ 3-5).

Miller is a former employee of NKU. (Id. at 1-2, ¶ 1). He was hired in December 2007 as the general manager of the University radio station, "WNKU." (Id. at 2, ¶ 1). The complaint does not allege that Miller agreed to work for a defined period of time, nor does it assert that he and the University executed an employment contract at the time he was hired. ( See Doc. # 5).

2. Miller's Termination

On January 13, 2014, Miller received a letter from Ramey stating that his employment was being terminated, effective February 10, 2014. (Id. at 5, ¶ 29). In the letter, Ramey explained that "[t]he continued decline in the financial performance of the station, coupled with my careful evaluation of the entire enterprise has unfortunately brought me to the decision that the station needs a new direction and change in leadership." (Doc. # 5-2 at 1). Miller was placed on paid administrative leave until his last day of employment, which came and went without incident. (Id. )

Shortly thereafter, Miller filed a grievance with NKU concerning his dismissal. (Id. at 5, ¶ 36). He met with the grievance committee on February 26, 2014, and met with President Mearns three weeks later. (Id. at 5, ¶ 37). Miller was not satisfied with the manner in which either of these meetings was conducted. He contends that Southwood denied his request to have legal counsel present at both meetings. (Id. at 6, ¶¶ 39-40). He also asserts that he was given no opportunity to cross-examine adverse witnesses, and had no chance to address the evidence against him because "he was not presented with such evidence with any specificity, either prior to the meeting or at the meeting itself." (Id. at 6, ¶¶ 42-44). Regardless, by letter dated March 27, 2014, Mearns informed Miller that his grievance was denied and that the decision to terminate his employment would be affirmed. (Doc. # 5-3).

3. NKU's Employment Policies

When Miller learned of his pending termination, NKU had in place a series of employment policies that were published on the University's website. (Doc. # 5 at 2, ¶ 8). Relevant to this case are the policies governing termination, discipline and the filing of grievances.

Termination Policies

Section C 7.2 governs involuntary termination, stating as follows:

If any staff member's performance of duty or personal conduct is unsatisfactory because of failure, neglect or unwilllingness to perform assigned duties, appropriate action with regard to involuntary separation from the university will be taken. Unless immediate discharge is warranted, appropriate discipline procedures will be followed before an employee is terminated. Depending upon the facts of the individual case, separation from

employment may be initiated for any of the following reasons. (Doc. # 5-1 at 1). The reasons referred to in the last sentence of Section C 7.2 include "inefficiency" and "misconduct, " which are covered in Sections C 7.3 and C 7.4, respectively. (Id. ) An inefficient employee is one who demonstrates an "inability to perform his job in a satisfactory manner, is excessively absent from the job without adequate justification or exhibits lack of interest, carelessness or other traits resulting in failing to meet the standards of the position." (Id. ) Except in unusual circumstances, an employee who is inefficient and has completed the probationary period will be given at least two weeks notice prior to dismissal. (Id. ) Misconduct, on the other hand, can lead to immediate ...

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