HR Strange But True!
April 21, 2009

A Dallas jury sided with a tenured chemistry professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio and said the school must pay him $175,000 for violating his due process rights by cleaning out his work area--including the contents of his office refrigerator--without giving him proper notice or getting his prior consent.

According to the Houston Chronicle, court records show Professor Philip Stotter was informed that he was violating University safety, health, and housekeeping policies by the “super-messy” conditions in which he kept his workspace, and that he had refused to improve the situation after both verbal and written (email) warnings that his lab and office were “extreme fire hazards” due to trash and piles of papers and boxes.

The professor said he did not receive official notice (a certified letter) of the “clean up or else” deadline for removal of his personal belongings from his laboratory until 2 days after his stuff was removed from the premises. He claimed the University's purge resulted in the loss of research notes and documentation and other items and equipment he had purchased himself, as well as some samples that were tossed out with the contents of the refrigerator.

The court indicated that due process mandates that employees must be given advance notice of any potential housekeeping measure that could result in personal property being disposed of without their prior knowledge and the chance to remove property of value to them--even including food in a refrigerator. Hence, the University's clean up was “objectively unreasonable.”

The ABA Journal commented that the award raises issues of “clients seeking an interpretation of court-ordered refrigerator etiquette” and whether employers can throw out the receptionist's week-old tuna fish sandwich without her approval.

Sources: Houston Chronicle and National Law Journal

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