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Ryan v. Mansfield State College

decided: May 4, 1982.



Before Seitz, Chief Judge, and Aldisert and Rosenn, Circuit Judges.

Author: Rosenn


Defendants Darnton, a former acting president of Mansfield State College (College), and Travis, appointed president on July 1, 1979, appeal from judgments entered on special jury verdicts finding them jointly and severally liable to Ryan, a former member of the College's music department. Pursuant to the jury verdicts, the district court entered judgment in favor of Ryan against both defendants in the sum of $40,988.68 with interest and costs, and separate judgments against Darnton and Travis for additional sums of $6,500 and $3,500 respectively with interest and costs.

The judgments were the result of a two-step proceeding in which the district court first determined on a motion for partial summary judgment that the defendants had, by purporting to accept Ryan's resignation without the approval of the College's Board of Trustees and refusing to reinstate him, deprived him of property in violation of his constitutional right to due process of law. In the second phase of the proceeding, a jury determined that defendants in their actions toward Ryan lacked good faith, and they could, therefore, be held liable for damages. Because we hold that the acting president of the college (President) did have authority to accept Ryan's resignation without Board approval, we reverse.


Ryan was employed by Mansfield State College as a member of the music faculty from September 1973 until March 12, 1979. Granted tenure in June 1976, he served as faculty director of the College's jazz band as well as a teacher of music. Ryan, upset because he had received notification that he had not been granted a desired promotion and that funds were not available for a student jazz band trip planned for the end of the month, on March 12, 1979, went to Darnton's office and informed him he wanted to resign. When advised there was no special form for resignation, Ryan wrote his own letter of resignation effective immediately. After consulting with the dean of the school of fine arts, the head of the music department, and the vice-president of academic affairs, the President, by letter of March 13, 1979, accepted Ryan's resignation. Darnton did not see Ryan again until Ryan appeared at a meeting of the College's Board of Trustees on April 7, 1979.

Ryan did not report for work after March 12 and the College promptly took measures to find a replacement. It was able to obtain the services on a part-time basis of Albert P. Hamme, a member of the faculty of the State University of New York who was on sabbatical leave. Approximately one-half of Ryan's teaching responsibilities were distributed to Hamme, and the remainder to certain members of the Mansfield faculty "on an overload basis."

On March 23 the President submitted his customary biweekly newsletter to the Board of Trustees and reported Ryan's March 12 resignation. On April 2 Darnton received a letter dated March 31 from Ryan stating, "I would like at this time to withdraw my letter of resignation and request that you not submit the same for approval by the Board of Trustees." Mansfield's Board of Trustees held their next regular meeting on April 7, 1979. After discussion at the meeting participated in by Ryan and Darnton, the Board appointed an ad hoc committee to meet with Darnton to look further into the matter of Ryan's resignation. At this same meeting the Board learned of Hamme's temporary appointment to fill Ryan's former position. The committee met with Darnton on April 18. He expressed his opposition to Ryan's reinstatement and wrote Ryan the following day informing him that the resignation would stand. He advised Ryan that a replacement had been employed but that "a search has been publicized for a permanent replacement" and if Ryan were interested in becoming a candidate he should apply.

At its July 16, 1979, meeting attended by defendant Travis, the Board voted to have its April 7 minutes amended nunc pro tunc to reflect a unanimous Board decision not to accept Ryan's resignation. The Board took no action directing the reinstatement of Ryan. Ryan consulted with his attorney and filed a grievance under the collective bargaining agreement in force between the faculty union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculty (APSCUF or Union), and the College, which was received by the College on June 25, 1979. Ryan's attorney arranged a meeting with the grievance chairman of the Mansfield chapter of the Union but this was cancelled by the College. Ryan submitted another grievance dated October 29, but he testified that "no action was taken" because the "union did not pursue it."*fn1

In the fall of 1979 Ryan obtained new counsel and in March 1980 he instituted suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Supp. III 1979).*fn2


Ryan presented his case on the theory that although he had submitted his resignation to the President of the College to take effect immediately, the resignation was ineffective because only the College's Board of Trustees and not the President had final authority to accept it; and that several days prior to the meeting of the Board on April 7, Ryan notified the President by letter that he was withdrawing his resignation. The plaintiff further contended that the Board subsequently rejected his resignation but notwithstanding that rejection, the President reaffirmed the acceptance of the resignation. This, the plaintiff averred, constituted a dismissal without notice and hearing, and so without due process of law (Amended Complaint P 20), and in violation of the collective bargaining agreement between the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and APSCUF. (Amended Complaint P 23.) The defendants responded that they did not terminate plaintiff's employment but that he "voluntarily resigned his position of employment and simultaneously removed himself from the college." (Answer P 8.)

On January 5, 1981, the district court granted Ryan's motion for partial summary judgment, relying on its previous decision of September 2, 1980, denying defendants' motion to dismiss, in which it had concluded that "under Pennsylvania law the Board of Trustees and not the President had the authority to accept or reject Ryan's resignation." Based on his determination that the President did not have final authority to accept Ryan's resignation, the trial judge in his order of January 5, 1981, summarily ruled that Ryan had been deprived of property without due process of law and ordered him reinstated "to a suspended with pay status."*fn3 The court ordered the case to proceed to trial only on the issue of defendants' good faith in their actions toward Ryan.

The district court, in its opinion of September 2, 1980, examined the division of authority between presidents and boards of trustees of state colleges under the relevant Pennsylvania statute, 24 Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. §§ 20-2001-20-2013 (Purdon Supp.1981) (entitled Article XX, State Colleges and hereinafter referred to as Article XX). The court concluded: "Since it is the Board of Trustees which has the final authority over appointments, it also has the final authority with respect to acceptance of resignations."*fn4 The district court rejected an interpretation of the Pennsylvania statute that the President had the power to accept Ryan's resignation. The court reasoned:

Neither side has brought any Pennsylvania case law to the Court's attention concerning this statute. The Court notes that the present statute governing state colleges was enacted in 1970 and resulted in more power being given to the presidents. The presidents of the State Colleges now have the authority to appoint faculty members but that authority is clearly subject to the approval of the Board of Trustees. While the Board may not approve an appointment which is inconsistent with the law or standards set by the Executive Board of the Commonwealth, the Civil Service Commission, or the policies of the Board of State College and University Directors, it has the discretionary authority to rest its decision on other grounds. Otherwise, it is difficult to imagine why the Board of Trustees would be the body designated to determine whether the law and standards of the Civil Service Commission had been complied with. Those are determinations that require legal expertise and if the only review contemplated by the legislature is of that nature, it is more likely that the approval of a Commonwealth attorney would have been required. The Court concludes that the power of the Board of Trustees to approve the appointment of employees is something more than a rubber stamp of a president's decisions. Since it is the Board of Trustees which has the final authority over appointment, it also has the final authority with respect to acceptance of resignations.


As the parties and the district court have acknowledged, the statute makes no reference to the acceptance of resignations.*fn5 Nor is there any Pennsylvania case law interpreting the statute with respect to the question of who, under the scheme it sets out, has the authority to accept resignations.*fn6 For this reason the parties have made arguments as to the legislature's intended division of authority between state college presidents and boards of trustees based on the language of the statute, its legislative history, and a comparison of the statute with its predecessor.

The section of Article XX dealing with the powers of the presidents of state colleges, entitled "Management of State Colleges and State Universities Within the Department," commences:

Subject to the stated authority of the Board of State Colleges and University Directors and the board of trustees, the president of each of the several State Colleges and State Universities shall administer the institution. Each president shall have the power and his duty shall be:

(1) To appoint such officers, faculty members, graduate assistants, and employes as may be necessary in accordance with law, and the standards set by the Executive Board of the Commonwealth and the Board of State College and University Directors.

24 Pa.Cons.Stat.Ann. § 20-2004.1 (Purdon Supp.1981).

The defendants argue that the presidents' power to appoint and their general managerial responsibilities under the statute vest the presidents with full authority to accept resignations. Therefore, the argument continues, Darnton's acceptance of Ryan's resignation terminated Ryan's property interest in the position ...

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