Last week the Seventh Circuit issued an interesting opinion reminding local governments that they generally must go through different procedures when hiring and firing employees than private-sector employers. The case, Bradley v. the Village of University Park, involved a lawsuit brought by the former police chief of University Park who claimed that he was fired without a hearing.
Private sector employees generally are “at-will,” which means that they can be fired on the spot and without cause. Since local governments are bound by the constitution, it doesn’t work the same way for them. The Supreme Court (and many other courts) have held that public employment can constitute a “property interest” that a government cannot deprive without notice and an opportunity to be heard, the same way that the government must give notice and an opportunity to be heard when it seeks to, for example, take someone’s house. Not all public employment creates a property interest, but those jobs where the employee has a reasonable expectation of continued employment, like where the employee has a contract or is an officer in the municipal government, will almost certainly create a property interest.
Therefore, the police chief argued that he had a property interest in his continued employment, which the Village deprived by not granting him a hearing. The Village acknowledged that he had a property interest, to which he was entitled a hearing, and that he did not receive one. To try to avoid this obvious violation of the chief’s due process rights, the Village attempted to invoke some of the limited exceptions to the rule that notice and an opportunity to be heard must be granted to public employees with a protectable property interest in their job. They argued that a hearing was impractical and that the police chief was required to seek his remedies under state law before he could obtain them under federal law.
The court did not buy these arguments and held that the police chief’s due process rights were violated when the Village fired him without a hearing. As a result, the Village may be forced to pay the police chief’s legal fees and any damages he suffered resulting from his firing.
Firing a public employee can pose many more legal challenges than firing a private sector employee. Not only are there federal constitutional issues that local governments have to navigate, but state statutes often provide for elaborate procedures in which the local government must engage before a particular employee may be fired. And collective bargaining agreements can add another layer of legal issues that local governments must navigate before firing an employee. Therefore, before firing any employee with a permanent position, local governments should consult with an attorney to make sure that they successfully navigate all of these legal challenges. Failing to do so could lead to lawsuits which require the government to pay the former employee’s attorneys’ fees in addition to any damages he or she suffered.