Defense of Disciplinary and Academic Enforcement Actions Taken by Florida State Universities and Colleges

By Robert S. Griscti and Jake D. Huxtable*

If you face serious disciplinary and/or academic “enforcement” action at a state college or university, you are not alone.  Administrators, faculty, employees and students are investigated and face disciplinary and/or academic enforcement actions on-campus, facing penalties that extend to dismissal/termination/non-renewal of contract; suspension; probation; loss of privileges, or other adverse consequences that affect not only present but future status.  Such investigations and proceedings often lack basic adversary fact-finding and procedural safeguards that are the bedrock of due process in judicial and administrative tribunals of this State and can be difficult to defend.  Exhaustion of a public university or college enforcement proceedings to final “agency” action by the academic institution may lead to judicial review, or more formal administrative procedures may be applied under state law, but practically, the initial on-campus proceedings often end in an adverse result, which have their own consequences to subsequent academic, employment and licensing.  Hence, these disciplinary and/or academic proceedings require serious and prompt assessment and defense.

There is much that you can do to protect yourself and your future.  Individuals facing adverse action at public universities do have certain rights, because a Florida college or university is considered a state agency.[1] While many proceedings are governed by procedural rules promulgated under state statutory authority – for example, Chapter 6C1 of the Florida Administrative Code for the University of Florida – there remain a myriad of procedures from college to college and campus to campus that must be carefully and promptly assessed by the employee or student under scrutiny and not waived by that individual because of untimely action or failure to assert defenses.

It is important to begin preparing your defense as early as possible – and certainly as soon as you receive notice of a university’s proposed action to be taken against you.  Speed is especially important if the policy that the university implements in your case offers only a brief time before the hearing (i.e., university policies vary depending on an individual’s employment position, a student’s specific department and/or school, etc.).  Individuals in healthcare and other professional programs face particularly complicated proceedings and possible implications from adverse action, including self-reporting requirements under state licensing laws.

By way of example, a faculty member who asserts unfair, arbitrary, or illegal enforcement action may file a grievance, which must be filed “no later than thirty (30) days from the date the grievant acquires knowledge” of the enforcement action.[2]  But under different circumstances, such as when a University of Florida faculty member is suspended or terminated for “just cause,” the option to appeal that decision and to schedule a meeting to present your side of the story must often be made in writing within a shorter time period following notice of the proposed termination or suspension.[3]  Failure to timely act can result in waiver of a defense or even the right to contest the enforcement proceeding.

Submitting a public records request of the institution may be appropriate to promptly gather information for defense of the action.  Not all university or college records are subject to disclosure – there are a number of exemptions to disclosure under Florida’s Public Records Act[4], but generally the Act is a useful method to obtain records from the university or college, if the institution’s own rules and policies don’t provide for production of the information on request. An array of information, including but not limited to internal e-mail correspondence, official minutes (i.e., notes) taken during committee hearings and meetings, etc., might be obtained quickly to assess the university’s case.  The University of Florida offers an easy public records portal online for submission[5]; however, the request for production usually should be as focused and detailed as possible to identify the specific information sought.  Delays in production otherwise can and do result.  In short, a dispute regarding public records requests can cause its own litigation.  Further, whether or not to request production of records under the Public Records Act should take into consideration whether the individual wants that information in the public forum, which it might not otherwise be.

If an initial determination is adverse to the individual, there typically is a procedural mechanism to appeal the discipline imposed, or that is proposed to be taken.  These remedies vary, and caution must be exercised to invoke an appeal or other review procedure in a timely and complete manner.

If, after exhausting all university administrative remedies (i.e., grievance, appeal, etc.), if the employee or student is dissatisfied with the university’s “final agency” decision, Florida law may allow for appeal to a judicial forum, usually a state District Court of Appeal.  Circuit courts in Florida also have potential jurisdiction over some disputes (for example, enforcement of the Public Records Act).  And formal proceedings under Florida’s Administrative Procedures Act may afford important remedies. [6]  Such procedures again warrant careful analysis and timely invocation.  Such judicial or formal administrative proceedings may provide substantially more “due process” and adversary rights than those offered by an academic institution.  Again, prompt and careful analysis of the issues and available procedures should be initiated by the individual facing disciplinary and/or academic proceedings.

In summary, an individual facing a disciplinary and/or academic investigation or proceeding on a public campus – and also at private universities and colleges – should promptly consider obtaining counsel to help assess the matter; consider potential current and future consequences of the action; and develop and deploy a viable strategy to defend the proceeding.

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Find Mr. Griscti’s profile here.

  • About the authors: Robert S. Griscti is a partner at the law firm of Salter Feiber, P.A., in Gainesville, Florida.  Jake D. Huxtable worked with Mr. Griscti at Salter Feiber as a law clerk and litigation associate.

 

[1] See Fla. Stat. § 120.52 (defining government “agency”).

[2] See UF Regulation 6C1-7.042, Grievance Procedure for Faculty and Postdoctoral Associates, available at http://regulations.ufl.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/7042.2016final4-8-16.pdf; see also, UF Regulation 6C1-7.041, Methods for Review and Resolution of Faculty Grievances, available at http://regulations.ufl.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/7041.2016final4-8-16.pdf.

[3] See UF Regulation 6C1-7.048, Academic Affairs, Suspension, Termination, and Other Disciplinary Action for Faculty, available at http://regulations.ufl.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/7041.2016final4-8-16.pdf.

[4] See Chapter 119, Florida Statutes.

[5] See University of Florida, Public Records Portal, available at  http://publicrecords.ufl.edu/.

[6] See Fla. Stat. §§ 120.569 (relating to agency “actions” that affect substantial interests) and 120.56 (relating to agency “rules” that affect substantial interests).

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