Professor sues GW, Medical Faculty Associates alleging breach of contract

Media Credit: File Photo by Arielle Bader | Assistant Photo Editor

Guillermo Gutierrez, a tenured medical professor, is suing the University and Medical Faculty Associates for $137,500.

A medical school professor is suing the University and the Medical Faculty Associates, alleging that the two entities breached their faculty agreement.

In an 18-page lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for D.C. Thursday, Guillermo Gutierrez, a tenured professor in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, claims that GW and MFA officials failed to follow agreements to pay him his salary during his sabbatical. He alleges that MFA and GW officials gave him conflicting information about whether he would be paid during his semester-long sabbatical.

Gutierrez is asking for $137,500, which includes legal costs and the salary he would have earned throughout the semester had he not left to go to Belgium, according to the complaint.

Gutierrez and his attorney, Michael Veve, declined to comment.

University spokeswoman Crystal Nosal said the University had not been served with the complaint at the time of publication and “cannot comment on the specifics.”

Gutierrez is suing the University for one count of breaching its faculty agreement with him, suing the MFA for one count of breaching its faculty agreement with him and suing for one count of the University and the MFA breaching its joint contract with him.

He is also alleging that the MFA and the University violated the D.C. Wage Payment and Collection Law, which allows D.C. workers to recover 10 percent of their wages for each day employees’ wages are late.

Gutierrez, who received tenure in 2001, was granted a Fulbright scholarship to conduct research in Belgium in 2019 and requested a semester-long sabbatical to complete the research, according to the complaint.

In April 2019, Gutierrez emailed MFA CEO Robert Kelly and Alan Wasserman, the chair of the department of medicine in the MFA, requesting that he receive half his salary while on sabbatical. The lawsuit states that he said he would continue to read electronic transmission pulmonary function tests for the MFA, which are medical tests that reveal how well a person’s lungs work.

Ray Lucas, the senior associate dean for faculty and health affairs at the medical school, told Gutierrez over email in June that he was eligible for sabbatical based on the University’s guidelines but added that MFA officials would ultimately determine whether he would be paid, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit states that Provost Brian Blake, GW’s chief academic officer, approved Gutierrez’s request for a sabbatical in an email Dec. 10 that claimed Gutierrez would receive “full salary.” Reassured by the provost’s email, Gutierrez departed for Belgium Dec. 16, according to the complaint.

Gutierrez sent an email to Sophie Pawlak, an MFA official, Jan. 2 confirming the salary arrangement for the period from Jan. 1 to June 30, the complaint states. He received a response back stating that the provost’s office likely erroneously sent the email claiming he would receive full pay because GW and the MFA are separate entities, and the MFA does not offer pay to professors on sabbatical, the complaint states.

Blake sent Gutierrez another email Jan. 7 claiming the University would approve the sabbatical and that the MFA would pay his full salary while he is abroad, the complaint states. Blake sent an additional email Jan. 9 correcting his previous email, stating that the University would grant the sabbatical but reiterating Lucas’s point that the MFA would determine his salary.

The complaint states that Gutierrez has received no pay during his leave of sabbatical since Jan. 1.

Gutierrez claims in the complaint that the medical school has paid the salaries of faculty who have gone on sabbatical in the past.

“GWU has never failed or refused to provide the salary of a GWU School of Medicine full-time faculty-member during GWU-approved research sabbaticals lasting the equivalent of one semester,” the complaint states.

MFA spokeswoman Barbara Porter declined to comment, citing an MFA policy not to comment on pending litigation.

Experts in higher education law said Gutierrez does not stand a good chance of winning the case because neither of the respondents in the case violated any state or federal law or breached their contract with Gutierrez.

Luke Cornelius, the director of higher education administration at the University of North Florida, said the University will have to decide whether it stands to lose more by settling the case or going through to trial.

“All universities have to do fundamental math when they get sued,” Cornelius said. “Is it worth fighting?”

He said since the MFA, not the University, directly pays Gutierrez’s salary, the University does not have an obligation to provide him payment during his sabbatical semester.

“The problem is the University is making the argument that they don’t directly pay this man,” he said. “He’s going to GW, what, 19 years now? He has never directly been paid a dime by George Washington University.”

Cornelius said Gutierrez’s case will likely depend on whether the MFA has paid for tenured professors’ sabbaticals in the past, which could be hard for Gutierrez to prove based on the facts he provided in his complaint. He said attorneys draft complaints based on the facts available, which is often only what their client provides them.

“It really comes down to does GW customarily pay medical faculty – not other faculty, medical faculty – for sabbatical?” he said. “And if they’ve done this, as this guy claims, in the past, then that would establish a pattern that would establish an expectation in his contract that they would pay him as well.”

Kathleen Conn – a counsel for the law firm King, Spry, Herman, Freund and Faul, LLC – said Gutierrez does not have a strong case against the University because he should have been aware of the stipulations regarding salary and sabbaticals present in his contracts with GW and the MFA.

“He can only sue in contract,” Conn said. “And he took the position with the Fulbright Fellowship, and the University looked like it was going to be happy about it, but Medical Faculty Associates were the ones that had to give permission.”

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