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A former Montana State University assistant professor is appealing to the Montana Supreme Court after a Gallatin County judge ruled against his lawsuit that accused the university of firing him illegally and damaging his reputation.

Ryan Jones’ notice of appeal was filed last week, challenging the decision by Gallatin District Court Judge John Brown to dismiss the lawsuit.

Judge Brown ruled in December in favor of MSU, writing that binding legal precedents are so clearly on the university’s side that Jones’s lawsuit should be dismissed without holding a scheduled jury trial.

Brown found that the Montana Supreme Court made clear in a 1992 case and other rulings that when Montana University System employees work on written contracts with specific one-year terms, the university system has “well-established discretion” to refuse to renew their contracts.

In at least three precedents, Brown wrote, “the Montana Supreme Court repeatedly and unambiguously held that employees, specifically university and college employees, on short-term employment contracts with specific end dates did not have a constitutionally protected property interest in their employment.”

Jones’ original lawsuit, filed in 2017, had accused MSU of abusing the one-year contracts used to hire hundreds of employees and asked the judge to declare their unrestrained use illegal.

Jones was hired at MSU in 2013 as an assistant research professor and in 2014 offered a tenure-track job as an assistant professor in microbiology and immunology and Montana Institute of Ecosystems. He was working on one-year contracts.

On June 1, 2016, MSU informed Jones that he was fired and his contract would not be renewed for the next academic year. He was paid five months salary as severance.

The firing came after a dispute between Jones and MSU over his failure to follow biosafety rules when he traveled to Peru to collect disease samples from fleas, ticks and mosquitos for his research. University officials alleged he was flippant in responding to their insistence on following rules and that he let a grad student bring back samples in his checked luggage, a violation of protocol.

Jones’s three immediate supervisors, Vice President and Agriculture Dean Charles Boyer, Letters & Science Dean Nicol Rae and department head Mark Jutila, unanimously recommended Jones be terminated.

Jones contended he had been cooperative with MSU’s and federal biosafety requirements. His lawsuit charged MSU failed to perform a required investigation of alleged research misconduct and had defamed him by falsely accusing him of violating ethical and professional standards.

After leaving MSU, Jones found a new job at higher pay in February 2018 at the University of Arizona, the ruling said.

Brown ruled MSU’s internal correspondence about biosafety violations were accurate and legally protected from defamation claims because officials were merely doing their jobs in evaluating an employee. A research misconduct investigation wasn’t required, the judge ruled, because those are used when a researcher is accused of fabricating, falsifying or plagiarizing research results, which were not alleged in this case.

Jones’ attorney, Brian Gallik of Bozeman, said Thursday that Jones is appealing because MSU “failed miserably in investigating the unfounded allegations” that led to the firing.

After the judge’s ruling, MSU’s attorney, Adam Tunning of Billings, filed a request that Jones pay $3,438 in MSU’s court costs, mainly for the witness depositions.

The university does not comment on pending lawsuits, said Michael Becker, MSU spokesman.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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