The Fourth Circuit recently reiterated the standards by which constitutional due process claims are to be evaluated in the context of a governmental employee’s demotion. Hall v. City of Newport News, et al. (No. 10-1653, March 14, 2012).
The facts in Hall are fairly straightforward. Hall, a police officer with the city of Newport News, was fired in November 2006 after the Chief of Police sustained four disciplinary charges against him. Hall thereafter appealed his discharge to the city’s grievance panel, which dismissed three charges and reduced the fourth. The grievance panel also directed the city to reinstate Hall to his prior position. After the grievance panel affirmed its decision and the police department failed to reinstate Hall, he brought an action in state court to enforce the panel’s decision. The city ultimately reinstated Hall in December 2008. However, Hall’s difficulties did not end there. When he returned to work, he was assigned to a civilian position and stripped of his law-enforcement powers and status as a police officer. The city also failed to remove from his personnel file the disciplinary charges that were overturned by the grievance panel.
Unhappy with his treatment by the police department, Hall sued pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging (a) a violation of his procedural due process rights by virtue of the city’s delay in reinstating him, (b) a deprivation of his liberty interest in his reputation and occupation without due process and (c) a deprivation of his property interest in his position as a police officer without due process. The federal court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint in all respects. The Fourth Circuit reversed in part, allowing Hall’s first two claims to proceed.
Governmental employers and employees should remember that typical state law claims take on a whole new meaning when the offending party is the government. Actions that could lead to tort or contract claims against private employers can often rise to constitutional violations. Public employers should ensure that employees receive the required notice and opportunity to be heard so to alleviate any constitutional concerns and prevent the possibility of litigation.