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Zimmerman v. University of Utah

United States District Court, D. Utah

July 17, 2018

JUDITH PINBOROUGH ZIMMERMAN, Ph.D., Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF UTAH and WILLIAM McMAHON, Ph.D., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          Jill N. Parrish United States District Court Judge

         On November 20, 2015, the University of Utah and Dr. William McMahon filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 46). The court issued an order granting the motion in part and denying it in part on July 1, 2016 (ECF No. 75), but the court reserved judgment on two issues and certified those to the Utah Supreme Court (ECF No. 76). That court issued its opinion on January 23, 2018 and remitted to this court for final adjudication on March 13, 2018. And on May 4, 2018, the parties filed supplemental briefs (ECF Nos. 127, 128). Consequently, the court now considers the remainder of the defendants' 2015 motion and grants it in part and denies it in part.

         I. FACTS

         Dr. Judith Pinborough Zimmerman is a speech-language pathologist who has been heavily involved in autism research.[1] In 2008, Dr. Zimmerman entered into an employment contract with the University. Pursuant to that contract, she was appointed as a research assistant professor for a “renewable one-year term.” The contract provided that Dr. Zimmerman's appointment “will subsequently be renewed each year thereafter, contingent on [her] progress and the availability of funds, for successive terms of one (1) year unless either [she] or the University gives written notice to the other of its intent not to renew [her] appointment.” Dr. Zimmerman's employment contract was renewed annually until her termination in June 2013.

         In August 2012, Dr. Zimmerman reported to the University concerns she had regarding possible misconduct and privacy violations. Specifically, she believed that confidential, identifiable data were illegally copied by a University employee and shared with individual researchers, including Dr. McMahon. Dr. Zimmerman also reported that University employees were “double-dipping” in reporting their research time.

         On December 12, 2012, Dr. McMahon delivered a letter to Dr. Zimmerman notifying her that her contract would not be renewed. Consequently, her employment with the University ended when her contract expired on June 30, 2013. Dr. Zimmerman filed this action on December 27, 2013.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the movant has met this burden, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). To do this, the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).

         When the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof at trial on a dispositive issue, that party must go “beyond the pleadings” and “designate specific facts” so as to “make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an essential element to that party's case.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. “The plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of judgment . . . against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Id. Thus, summary judgment is not a “disfavored procedural shortcut” but rather “an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole” that is designed “to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action.” Id. at 327.

         III. DISCUSSION

         In the court's prior order on the instant motion, the court reserved judgment on two issues: Dr. Zimmerman's free speech claim under the Utah Constitution and Dr. Zimmerman's claim under the Utah Protection of Public Employees Act (“UPPEA”). It then certified questions pertaining to those issues to the Utah Supreme Court. Having received and reviewed that court's decision and the parties' supplemental briefing on these issues, the court now addresses each in turn.

         A. Dr. Zimmerman's Free Speech Claim

         Dr. Zimmerman's fourth cause of action alleges that the University violated Dr. Zimmerman's free-speech rights under the Utah Constitution when it decided not to renew her appointment. Dr. Zimmerman's asserted free-speech right stems from Article I, Section 1 of the Utah Constitution. That section reads:

All men have the inherent and inalienable right to enjoy and defend their lives and liberties; to acquire, possess and protect property; to worship according to the dictates of their consciences; to assemble peaceably, protest against wrongs, and petition for redress of grievances; to communicate freely their thoughts and opinions, being responsible for the abuse of that right.

Utah Const. art. I, § 1. And Article I, Section 15 provides, in part, that “[n]o law shall be passed to abridge or restrain the freedom of speech or of the ...


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