By Kate Acheson and Jim Cline
In Dill v. City of Clarksville, a Tennessee Court of Appeals vacated the termination of a police officer because that officer was deprived of due process in the termination proceedings. Although there was sufficient evidence to support the decision to discipline the officer, the police chief failed to follow the procedure set out in the city code — requiring all relevant investigation materials be forwarded to human resources prior to taking disciplinary.
Jimmy Dill, a 23-year officer for the City of Clarksville, was notified on August 4, 2010, that he was suspected of officer guideline violations and was entitled to a pre-discipline meeting with Police Chief Alonso Ansley, on August 9. During that August 9 meeting, Dill was presented with video evidence of his violations and a Notice of Discipline terminating his employment. He sought to overturn the termination, claiming his right to due process was violated.
According to the city code, Clarkville employees are entitled to “minimum due process” in connection with disciplinary actions, meaning the department must (1) follow its established rules and procedures in taking disciplinary action and (2) give the employee an opportunity to respond before taking disciplinary action. One of Clarksville’s established rules requires that a copy of the investigation and decision, along with all relevant material, must be forwarded to the human resources manager, prior to taking disciplinary action.
Here, the record shows that Chief Ansley did not forward his investigation materials to the human resources department prior to making the decision to terminate Dill. So, although Dill was given notice of the charges against him and an opportunity to respond, the Appeals Court found that:
“The failure to follow the disciplinary procedure violated Mr. Dill’s right to due process of law.”
Thus, the Tennessee Court of Appeals vacated Dill’s termination. In a concurring opinion, one of the judges agreed to uphold the due process violation but strictly on the grounds that “the city did not follow the procedures mandated by city ordinance” not on constitutional grounds:
I concur in the majority’s conclusion that the disciplinary action taken by the city must be set aside because of the failure to follow its own procedures for such action. However, I want to make clear that, in my opinion, Constitutional due process was not implicated.
The concurring opinion appears more in line with the larger body of case law. While on occasion, the failure to follow defined employer procedures might constitute a violation of “substantive” due process, the “procedural” due process requirements, are not normally automatically implicated to the extent an employer fails to abide by written procedures that exceed the minimal due process defined by Loudermill. An employer failure to abide by those written procedures might implicate statute, civil service rules, or a CBA, but they did not necessarily establish a constitutional due process violation.