Seventh Circuit Finds “Reasonable Cause” Provision in School CBA Creates Protected Fourteenth Amendment Rights
In a recent decision, Cheli v. Taylorville Community School District, the Seventh Circuit held that a school district violated a former employee’s due process rights when it terminated him without cause. The court reasoned that the former employee’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) stated that employees could only be fired for “reasonable cause,” creating a protected property interest in continued employment such that the employee was entitled to due process.
The plaintiff, Cheli, was asked to meet with school district administration 25 minutes in advance of the meeting and was ultimately terminated at the meeting based on allegations that he harassed a student. The Board of Education later entered a resolution terminating Cheli; however, Cheli never received notice of the Board meeting at which the resolution was passed and did not receive notice of the charges or evidence against him that the Board considered. Cheli subsequently sued the school district, claiming that it violated his procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court dismissed the case, finding that the facts alleged by Cheli were not sufficient to infer that he had a property interest in continued employment. Cheli later appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
Under Illinois law, to demonstrate a legitimate expectation of continued employment, a plaintiff must show specific language in an ordinance, law, or contract that limits the ability of a public entity to terminate them. Typically, this is shown through language that termination will only be “for cause.” In this case, the labor agreement specified that an employee could only be terminated for “reasonable cause.” The school district unsuccessfully argued that such language indicated that the district had the option to terminate for reasonable cause, but that it was not required. The Seventh Circuit found that the language in the CBA limited the district’s discretion to terminate the employee and that the language would be “surplusage” if reasonable cause was not required.
The Court also found that other provisions in the CBA supported its determination that Cheli could only be fired for reasonable cause. For instance, the CBA included a reference to probationary periods. Illinois courts have frequently held that employee agreements or manuals that give an employer the right to discharge probationary employees for any reason, but non–probationary employees only for just cause, create tenure rights. The CBA also contained specific provisions for disciplinary proceedings that indicated employees must be afforded a conference, a right to a representative, and a written explanation of the district’s decision. The Court reasoned that while these provisions alone do not indicate a property interest, when read together, they support the existence of a property interest in continued employment. There was also no other language in the CBA that disclaimed such a property interest. Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit held that the CBA created a property interest in Cheli’s employment and reversed and remanded the decision to the district court.
School districts should be cognizant of including reasonable cause provisions in an employee contract or CBA, as doing so may indicate a protected property interest in employment such that the school district cannot terminate an employee for any reason. This case serves as a reminder that where such language appears in a labor agreement, the employee must be afforded basic due process protections, including notice and an opportunity to be heard.
If you have any questions regarding this decision, please contact the authors of this post or any other Franczek attorney.