The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has quantified the value of professor emeritus status. In Zelnik v. Fashion Institute of Technology, Zelnik was a professor at FIT who objected publicly, both before and after his retirement, to an FIT expansion plan. Zelnik exercised his free speech right as a private citizen and on a matter of public concern. FIT’s president decided not to award Zelnik emeritus status because of Zelnik’s public objections to FIT’s expansion plan. Zelnik sued under § 1983 alleging that FIT’s retaliation violated his first and fourteenth amendment rights and rights under the New York State Constitution.
Judge Miner, writing for a unanimous court, affirmed the district court’s entry of summary judgment for FIT. To state a claim, Zelnik needed to show (inter alia) a “materially adverse change” such that the retaliatory conduct “would deter a similarly situated individual of ordinary firmness from exercising his or her constitutional rights”. Examples include “assignment of lunchroom duty” and “assignment to a classroom on the fifth floor”.
“We hold that the failure to afford Professor Emeritus status to Zelnik was not an adverse action because the benefits of such status, given the record before us, carry little or no value and their deprivation therefore may be classified as de minimis. [citation omitted] The benefit of emeritus status, such as it is in this case, is merely honorific. Zelnik has adduced no evidence in the record before us that a professor with emeritus status at FIT is entitled to any benefit or item of value beyond what is afforded to other retired faculty members.”
However, Miner, C.J., held that where emeritus status carries specific and well-defined benefits and where the criteria for awarding emeritus status are not standardless, the denial of emeritus status may be actionable.
This case is obviously an object lesson to corporate law professors and students contemplating becoming corporate law professors.