Trial and Arbitration Plenty of Due Process for Acquitted Police Officers

By: Loyd Willaford and Matt Baker

In Otto v. Williams, plaintiffs were seven police officers who were accused of conspiracy, fired, and later acquitted. A labor arbitrator reinstated them with back pay after their acquittal. Despite this, the officers brought a lawsuit against the City and the Police Department, arguing that their procedural due process had been violated because they had a property interest in their reputations, and that interest had been violated without due process. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed their claims.

The seven police officers had worked in the Narcotics Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department. They were accused of conspiracy and extortion, among other crimes, for allegedly robbing suspected drug dealers. A grand jury indicted the officers of these crimes. Between the indictment and the trial, the officers were terminated by the Philadelphia Police Department. During the trial, the officers were acquitted of all charges. A labor arbitrator then ordered that they be reinstated to their old jobs, with full back pay.

Although the officers had been fully reinstated, they still claimed that their reputations had been damaged and that they had a property interest in their reputations. Accordingly, they brought a lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Philadelphia Police Department. Their complaint alleged that they had been denied a proper hearing to reinstate their reputation, and that the reputational damage could preclude them from future employment.

The District Court did not find merit in these claims. The court held that the trial, in which they were acquitted, as well as their union grievance and labor arbitration, which resulted in reinstatement, was plenty of process. The court also held that due process did not extend to the possibility of future unemployment:

In this context, due process has never been understood to require the opportunity to cure all reputational harm. Accordingly, a due process violation based on a “possible loss of future employment opportunities” is not actionable.

Accordingly, the court dismissed all their claims, finding that the trial and arbitration had afforded the plaintiffs their due process.

This case illustrates the intersection of individual employment law claims, claims for violation of a labor contract, and constitutional law claims makes against public employers.  Generally speaking, where a employee seeks relief under a labor contract, that same employee will not be able to also sue in court for the same relief. Here, the officers tied to reframe their case as alleging different  kinds of relief, but the Court did not agree because the alleged bad acts were all  either dealt with in the labor arbitration or the remedies the officers sought were barred by law. In addition, the officers alleged a constitutional due process violation despite the fact that they got their jobs back and full back pay in an arbitration. Due process does not mean getting all the relief one wants, rather it means was one given notice and an opportunity to be heard before a substantial right is taken away by the government. Here, the criminal trial and the arbitration process were more than sufficient to satisfy due process.

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