ST. GEORGE – Former Dixie State University professor Varlo Davenport has filed suit against Dixie State University President Richard “Biff” Williams, other university administrators and a Utah assistant attorney general, alleging multiple civil rights violations and breach of contract.
Davenport was fired from his 15-year tenured position as a theater professor at Dixie State in November 2014 even though a faculty review board cleared him of any wrongdoing and recommended his reinstatement.
In July 2016, Davenport was acquitted of a single charge of assault brought by the City of St. George on behalf of a student who claimed Davenport assaulted her during a classroom acting exercise.
Read more: Jury finds Varlo Davenport ‘not guilty’
Aaron Prisbrey, Davenport’s attorney, alleges the university pushed for criminal charges in order to cover up the administration’s error in firing Davenport without due process.
The complaint was filed Friday morning in U.S. District Court, District of Utah, and names Williams, fine arts department chairman Mark Houser, campus security chief Don Reid, board of trustees chair Christina Durham and others. See below.
The suit alleges that Dixie State violated Davenport’s freedom of speech and right to due process and asks for $5 million for emotional distress, mental anguish and damage to Davenport’s reputation, and $15 million in punitive damages.
“You can’t fire someone who’s tenured without a termination hearing,” Aaron Prisbrey, Davenport’s attorney, said.
When Davenport was hired, the lawsuit states, he was not offered a written contract, but rather told that his terms of employment were governed by the Dixie State policy manual.
The university then violated its own policies and Davenport’s civil rights by targeting him for demotion and termination in a secret program, the suit alleges.
Davenport first became a target for the secret program because a faculty member disapproved of what he felt was the inappropriate nature of some of Davenport’s theater productions, the lawsuit alleges, which violates basic academic freedoms and Davenport’s freedom of speech.
Dixie State administration ran the university as a parochial school, demanding compliance and instruction consistent with the tenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the suit alleges.
Davenport believed the students needed an experience similar to what they would experience after graduation in a fiercely competitive industry, the suit states, and administrators never informed Davenport that there was a problem.
The suit was filed based in part on information obtained in the release of more than 20,000 emails relating to Davenport’s firing and subsequent criminal charges. The emails were released by order of Washington County Justice Court Judge Karlin Myers in June 2016 during Davenport’s trial for assault.
Davenport is just happy the lawsuit has finally been filed.
“I am relieved to finally be at the point where I can hopefully start to rebuild my profession and reputation, my professional reputation,” Davenport said.
“I think the case will lay out that there were some real problems with how the case was handled, with the (lack of) due process and the duplicity of some of the people involved. And I’m just glad that we can finally start to let this see the light of day.”
The lawsuit asks for reinstatement of Davenport to his tenured position at Dixie State, along with costs, attorneys’ fees, compensation for lost wages and punitive damages.
“Goal No. 1 is what I have always wanted: I want my job back,” Davenport said, “or to be able to do my job again. To be able to practice my profession.”
“My joy is watching young artists grow,” he said. “That’s always been the part of the thing that makes my heart happy.”
Also named in the lawsuit are DSU administrators and staff including then-executive vice president William Christensen, dean of performing arts Jeffrey Jarvis, dean of students Del Beatty, vice president of administrative services Paul Morris, media relations director Steve Johnson and assistant security director Ron Isaacson.
Utah Assistant Attorney General Michael Carter is also named in the suit along with several unnamed and unknown “John Does.”
All of the defendants are being sued personally; Dixie State University is not named in the suit.
As of Friday afternoon, neither the University nor any employees named in the lawsuit had been served with the complaint, Dixie University Director of Public Relations Jyl Hall said in an emailed statement, and would only respond to the complaint through the Utah Attorney General’s Office representative.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office declined to comment, public information officer Dan Burton said.
“I am not sure whether we are representing Dixie State, so I can’t comment on that, but as far as whether we’re going to comment on the suit itself right now, we are not commenting at all,” Burton said.
Carter had not seen the complaint as of Friday afternoon but said that under the circumstances, he would decline to comment.
The case has been assigned to Judge Evelyn Furse in the U.S. District Court, District of Utah, Central Division.
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