Two Seventh Circuit Cases Clarify Necessity of Termination Hearings for Public Employees
When is a hearing required in order to terminate a contracted public employee? The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from taking away an individual’s property without a hearing, and an individual’s employment may be considered property for this purpose. Accordingly, a hearing may be required to terminate a government employee’s contract. In two competing cases, Linear v. Village of University Park, Illinois and Breuder v. Bd. Of Trustees of Community College Dist. No. 502, the Seventh Circuit (which has jurisdiction in Illinois) explained when an individual has such a property right and is thus entitled to a pre-termination hearing.
In the first case, Linear was hired as the Village Manager for the Village of University Park in 2011. His contract ran through May 2015 but allowed the Village to fire him without cause (though he would be due six months’ severance pay). In 2014, the Village extended the contract by a year, but, in spring 2015, it reversed course and revoked the extension. Linear sued, claiming, among other things, that he had a property interest in the extension of the contract and the Village was required to hold a hearing before revoking the extension.
The Seventh Circuit held that no such right existed in this case. Linear’s contract allowed the Village to fire him without cause; he, therefore, did not have any entitlement to maintain his position and had no right to a termination hearing. While Linear may have been entitled to severance pay, such a claim would be rooted in state law, not the Due Process Clause, and could be resolved after his termination, rather than requiring a hearing prior to termination.
In the second case, Breuder was hired as the president of the College of DuPage in 2008. His contract ran through 2019 and provided that he could only be terminated if he committed an act of misconduct. In 2015, newly elected members of the College’s Board discharged Breuder without notice or a hearing. Breuder sued, claiming that his termination without a hearing violated the Due Process Clause of the Constitution.
After rejecting the Board’s arguments that the contract was invalid, the Seventh Circuit found that Breuder had a right to a hearing on two grounds. First, the Board’s discharge statement declared that Breuder had committed an act of misconduct, which could amount to defamation. The Supreme Court has long held that a public employee is entitled to a hearing before being defamed as part of discharge or, at least, to a “name clearing” hearing after the discharge. Second, the court found that Breuder had a legitimate claim of entitlement to his position because his contract set out a term of years and forbid termination except for specific cause. As such, Breuder had a Constitutional property interest in his job that required a hearing prior to termination.
Importantly for public employers, these cases clarify that at-will government employees are not entitled to a pre-termination hearing under the United States Constitution. However, when a public employee has been granted a contract for an established period of time that provides only “for cause” termination, that employee may be entitled to a hearing regarding his or her termination. These distinctions are important for public employers to keep in mind when making employment decisions regarding contracted employees.