If the end of former Professor Louis Wozniak’s legal battle with the University of Illinois is not here, it’s certainly near.
In a scathing seven-page opinion issued Tuesday, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld the dismissal of Wozniak’s wrongful-termination lawsuit against the UI. It found that Wozniak, a longtime tenured professor in the College of Engineering, created the grounds for his 2013 firing when he “waged an extended campaign against students who did not give him an award” and ignored directives from his superiors to cease and desist.
“Inconsiderate and insubordinate is the most charitable description one can attach to his conduct,” Justice Frank Easterbrook wrote for a unanimous three-member panel.
Justices Diane Wood and David Hamilton joined in the decision.
A 50-year member of the engineering faculty, Wozniak was the first tenured faculty member to be dismissed by the UI since the 1960s.
His dismissal stems from a Wozniak-driven controversy over a teaching award made annually by two student honor societies.
A previous winner, Wozniak was exorcised when a 2009 award went to one of his colleagues — Ali E. Abbas.
“Wozniak thought he should have received the award and set out to investigate,” Easterbrook wrote.
In doing so, Wozniak “aggressively interrogated” the head of one honor society and “got her to cry.” He conducted additional questioning of a UI employee “who did not cry but was distressed.”
“He then posted on his website information criticizing the student heads of the honor societies and enabling readers to determine their identities. That violated university policies as well as conditions attached to the university’s federal grants,” Easterbrook wrote.
Ultimately, Wozniak filed a lawsuit in state court over the award.
Wozniak, who was represented by Naperville lawyer Stuart Polizzi, argued his dismissal violated his free speech right to address issues of public concern and that he was denied his “due process” right to defend himself at a termination hearing before UI trustees.
The appeals court found Wozniak’s free speech argument unpersuasive because “he was fired for intentionally causing hurt to students and refusing to follow the dean’s instructions, not simply for publicizing the effects of his actions.”
Noting that Wozniak had “two hearings — one before (a faculty) committee and one before the (UI) board,” the justices rejected Wozniak’s “due process” claim.
“At each he was represented by counsel and allowed to call witnesses and present argument,” Easterbrook wrote.
Wozniak filed his lawsuit against the UI in 2015. After it was dismissed by U.S. Judge Colin Bruce, he appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
Now his legal options — at least in this lawsuit — have dwindled.
He can ask the appeals court to reconsider its decision. He can asked the full Seventh Circuit to conduct a en banc review. Finally, he can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the appellate court’s decisions.
Given the unanimous appellate court opinion, none of those alternatives appears viable.
“This particular matter is (over),” said UI lawyer William Brinkmann, who said Wozniak “certainly has the right” to continue to pursue the litigation but suggested his chances of success are nil.
Brinkmann said he was “pleased with everything” in the appellate court opinion.
“I can’t say I’m surprised at the tone,” he said.
Wozniak, who was unaware of the court’s ruling, declined comment.
“I have not seen the judgment, and I would not be ready to discuss it,” he said.
Wozniak’s lawyer did not respond to inquiries.
The veteran professor had a long history of disputes with colleagues in the engineering departments, engaging in conduct that was widely criticized for being unreasonable.
Nonetheless, a UI faculty committee reviewed the dispute over the 2009 award and recommended Wozniak not be dismissed because the punishment would be excessive.
“Being a self-righteous, obsessed and insensitive person is not a cause to dismiss,” the faculty committee concluded.
UI administrators, however, continued to pursue dismissal, and, after reviewing the matter, trustees agreed.