School Employees' Rights Broadened By High Court
Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court, in a move that broadened the rights of many public-school employees, ruled last week that before such employees can be fired they must be given a full explanation of the reasons for their dismissal and a chance to rebut them in a hearing.
The right of a school employee to continue employment outweighs a school board's interest in the immediate firing of an unsatisfactory worker, said the Court in an 8-to-1 decision. "Affording the employee an opportunity to respond prior to termination would impose neither a significant administrative burden nor intolerable delays," it ruled.
The Court went on to say that the hearings did not have to be "elaborate" and did not have to "definitely resolve the propriety of the discharge."
"It should be an initial check against mistaken decisions--essentially, a determination of whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that the charges against the employee are true and support the proposed action," the Court said.
20 States Affected
The pair of cases decided in a single ruling last week stemmed from the firings of school employees in Cleveland and Parma, Ohio. Ohio and 19 other states have civil-service laws that permit dismissed public employees to make their cases for reinstatement only after their dismissals have taken effect.
The first case, Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill (Case No. 83-1362), involved the dismissal in 1980 of James Loudermill, a security guard accused of lying about a felony conviction on an employment application. The other case, Parma Board of Education v. Donnelly (No. 83-1363), involved the dismissal of Richard Donnelly, a bus mechanic, after he failed an eye examination in 1977.
The two employees filed separate lawsuits in federal district court after the state's civil-service commission voted not to reinstate Mr. Loudermill and to deny Mr. Donnelly back pay although he was reinstated. Both men alleged that the state's civil-service code denied them due process of law in violation of the 14th Amendment because they never had an opportunity to respond to the school boards' charges against them prior to their firing.
The district court ruled against the employees, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned the lower court's ruling.
Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Byron R. White stated, "The point is straightforward: the due-process clause provides that certain substantive rights--life, liberty, and property--cannot be deprived except persuant to constitutionally adequate procedures. In3short, once it is determined that the due-process clause applies, the question remains what process is due. The answer to that question is not to be found in the Ohio statute."
Justice White said that the need for hearings before termination "is evident from a balancing of the competing interests at stake."
First, he noted that employees have a substantial interest in keeping their jobs. "While a fired worker may find employment elsewhere, doing so will take some time and is likely to be burdened by the questionable circumstances under which he left his previous job," Justice White said.
He also pointed out that both Mr. Loudermill and Mr. Donnelly "had plausible arguments to make that might have prevented their discharge,'' indicating that the opportunity for an employee to present his side of case prior to dismissal "is recurringly of obvious value in reaching an accurate decision."
At minimum, Justice White continued, the due-process clause mandates that a tenured public employee "is entitled to oral or written notice of the charges against him, an explanation of the employer's evidence, and an opportunity to present his side of the story."
"To require more than this prior to termination would intrude to an unwarranted extent on the government's interest in quickly removing an unsatisfactory employee," he concluded.
Concurrences and Dissent
In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that the majority's opinion did not go far enough. He said the Court should have ruled that public employees must be given an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and present witnesses on their own behalf before a decision is made to terminate their wages.
"[T]he disruption caused by a loss of wages may be so devastating to an employee that, whenever there are substantive disputes about the evidence, additional pre-deprivation6procedures are necessary to minimize the risk of erroneous termination," Justice Marshall said. Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. made a similar argument in a separate concurring opinion.
In a lone dissent, Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist argued that public employees are entitled to no more protections than the state is willing to give them.
"The lack of any principled standards in this area means that these procedural due-process cases will recur time and again," he predicted. "One way to avoid subjective and varying interpretations of the due-process clause in cases such as this is to hold that one who avails himself of government entitlements accepts the grant of tenure with its inherent limitations."
The Court also took action last week on the following issues:
Draft Registration. In a 7-to-2 decision, the Court ruled that the federal government did not violate the Constitution when it enforced the nation's five-year-old draft-registration law by selectively prosecuting only avowed draft resisters.
The Court's action cleared the way for a resumption of the prosecution of David Alan Wayte, a 24-year-old former Yale University student, and 17 other men who wrote to the White House and the Selective Service System vowing not to register.
Mr. Wayte argued that he was being prosecuted not for having failed to register but rather for being a vocal opponent of draft registration. Such action, he maintained, violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. held that the government did not unconstitutionally select the men for prosecution, but rather that "those prosecuted in effect selected themselves for prosecution by refusing to register after being reported and warned by the federal government."
In a dissenting opinion, Justices Marshall and Brennan held that the Court did not have to decide the First Amendment and selective-prosecution issues raised in the case. Instead, they said, the Court should have ruled only on the issue of Mr. Wayte's entitlement to additional evidence from the government that might have enabled him to build a stronger case.
The case is Wayte v. U.S. (No. 83-1292).
Legal Fees. The Court let stand a federal appeals court's August 1984 ruling that an Ohio school district was not entitled to more than $10,000 in legal fees and other costs in a case stemming from the expulsion of a high-school student in 1980 for the possession and use of marijuana. The case was Tarter v. Raybuck (No. 84-858).
The parents of the student, David Tarter, sued Cuyahoga County school officials in federal district3court, alleging that their son's expulsion from school was based on evidence obtained in a search conducted in violation of the Fourth and 14th Amendments.
The federal district court ruled in the school officials' favor and awarded them legal fees and other costs totaling $10,848. A federal appeals court affirmed the lower court's holding in favor of the school district but reversed on the question of the fees.
Licensing. The Court also declined to hear suit brought by a Florida university seeking a license to conduct courses in the District of Columbia.
A district commission in 1983 denied a license to Nova University, which was seeking to establish an experimental program for some 20 to 25 students that would have led to a doctorate in public administration. The commission refused to allow the institution to conduct courses because it did not own a library in the city and none of its faculty members taught full time in the city.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the commission's decision to deny the license, holding that there was "an unacceptable risk that the program would be substandard." The university alleged that its First Amendment rights had been violated because the denial of the license was based on an assumed risk and not because the proposed program was actually substandard.
The case was Nova University v. Educational Institution Licensure Commission (No. 84-1264).