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October 18, 2007
Three suspended Ave Maria School of Law employees have filed a lawsuit in a Michigan court against the school, Dean Bernard Dobranski and Board Chairman Tom Monaghan.
Professors Stephen Safranek, Edward Lyons and Phil Pucillo contend they were wrongfully discharged in violation of their contracts and the state’s public policy and whistleblowers’ laws for essentially reporting the school’s administration to a variety of law enforcement and legal agencies.
Safranek, Lyons and Pucillo also allege conflicts of interest between Monaghan, the law school and other organizations associated with Monaghan. Two of those nonprofits, Friends of Ave Maria School of Law and Ave Maria Foundation, were also named in the suit, filed Wednesday.
AMSL began classes in 2000 in Ann Arbor, Mich. In February, the school announced it would move by 2009 to the new Collier County town, Ave Maria, co-founded by Monaghan and centered on Ave Maria University, a university in the Catholic tradition also founded by Monaghan. The law school has no official relationship with the university.
Deborah Gordon, a high-profile Michigan employment and civil rights lawyer who is representing the plaintiffs, called the suit the beginning of “a big, huge battle royal.”
“Their lawyers must be rubbing their hands with glee at all the hours they’ll be spending on this case,” she said.
The lawsuit was not an unexpected development given the recent controversy at the school. The move to Florida and its handling by the school’s administration has been at the center of faculty complaints. Last year, members of the faculty held a vote of “no confidence” in Dobranski and asked the board to remove him, but it refused. The American Bar Association, which is the primary accreditation body for law schools, is investigating the school’s ability to attract and retain competent faculty members. The ABA also must give its approval for the school to move to Florida. An ABA spokesman declined comment on the lawsuit and reiterated its inquiry process is “confidential.”
Safranek, a tenured professor, was suspended with a recommendation for termination and barred from campus at the end of July. Lyons and Pucillo were denied tenure and placed on administrative leave of absence in August.
“It’s the bare-bones allegations of what’s taken place,” Safranek said. “I’m sure as this process moves forward we’ll learn much more.”
The heart of the suit, Gordon said, is Monaghan’s involvement in multiple organizations including those in which he has a financial stake. That involvement violates the law school board’s independence from Monaghan’s “tentacles.”
“We think we can prove the illegal acts by showing the connections between Monaghan, the board and his other organizations,” she said.
Gordon said she planned to depose Monaghan, Dobranski and various past and present members of the school’s board, which currently includes high-ranking Catholic Church officials such as, Cardinal Edward Egan, the archbishop of New York and Cardinal Adam Maida, the archbishop of Detroit.
“You have a lot of trappings here where people thought this would be a legitimate institution,” she said.
The professors’ complaint also lists potentially volatile personal allegations against Monaghan and other school officials.
The lawsuit states Monaghan “claimed that the Virgin Mary, whom Catholics revere as the Mother of God, personally directed him to develop Ave Maria Town and Ave Maria University in Southwest Florida.” Gordon said there were witnesses who could support that allegation.
Additionally, the lawsuit contends Dobranski misrepresented the employment status of former U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork as a tenured professor at the school and obstructed a Michigan state police criminal investigation into a local priest’s involvement in accused sex offenses.
In response to the lawsuit, Dobranski released a one-sentence statement through the school’s Cleveland-based public relations firm.
“We are confident that the actions of the School of Law were both proper and legal and we look forward to the court coming to this same conclusion,” Dobranski said.
Dobranski also confirmed attorney Carey DeWitt of the Detroit law firm Butzel Long would be defending the school in the lawsuit. DeWitt couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Dobranski has said the ongoing complaints were an effort by a “very small group of people” to spread “disinformation and misinformation” about the school.
Lyons and Pucillo couldn’t be reached for comment and Monaghan was out of the country and unavailable for comment, the school’s public relations firm said.