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Hearing Not Required Before Suspending Worker, Court Rules

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Washington

Public employers do not have to provide a due process hearing before suspending a worker without pay for alleged wrongdoing, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week.

The unanimous ruling came in a case involving a university police officer suspended after his arrest on drug charges and applies to school districts and other government employers across the nation. The decision was included in a flurry of action as the high court nears the end of its term.

Separately, the court said last week that it would examine whether the main federal employment-discrimination law covers same-sex harassment on the job.

And the justices declined to review a federal appeals court ruling that said school districts usually cannot be held liable for sexual harassment of a student by a teacher.

That action means districts are still looking for more guidance from the high court on the reach of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law barring gender bias in federally funded education programs.

The high court's June 9 ruling in the due process case, Gilbert v. Homar (Case No. 96-651), involved a police officer at East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University who was arrested in 1992 by state police on drug charges. University officials immediately suspended the officer without pay.

Although the charges were dropped, the university conducted its own investigation and demoted the officer to the position of groundskeeper.

The officer, Richard J. Homar, sued university officials, contending that their failure to provide him with a hearing to present his side of the story before suspending him without pay was a violation of his due process rights.

He lost in federal district court, but won in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

The appeals court panel said suspensions without pay merit a due process hearing under the Supreme Court's 1985 ruling in Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill.

In Loudermill, the high court said tenured public employees were entitled to limited due process hearings prior to termination, to be followed by more comprehensive hearings.

NEA Brief Filed

In the university officials' appeal to the Supreme Court, the National Education Association filed a brief supporting the officer.

Union officials said the suspension without pay deprived Mr. Homar of his property interest in "an uninterrupted flow of income."

In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the high court rejected the extension of the Loudermill principle to suspensions without pay.

"The state has a significant interest in immediately suspending, when felony charges are filed against them, employees who occupy positions of great public trust and high public visibility, such as police officers," Justice Scalia said.

He rejected the idea that an employer could satisfy this public interest by suspending the employee with pay until a due process hearing.

"We think ... that the government does not have to give an employee charged with a felony a paid leave at taxpayer expense," he said.

Gender Bias, Immunity

In separate action, the high court:

  • Declined to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that said school districts could not be held strictly liable under Title IX for sexual harassment of a student by a teacher.

The case of Leija v. Canutillo Independent School District (No. 96-1616) involved alleged sexual abuse of a 2nd grade student by her teacher in the Texas district. A jury awarded the girl's family $1.4 million in the case, although the trial judge threw out the damages award.

An appeals court panel ruled 2-1 that the district could not be held liable under Title IX because officials did not have adequate notice of the alleged abuse.

The high court declined without comment to hear the family's appeal.

  • Agreed to decide whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers sexual harassment between co-workers or supervisors and employees of the same gender.

Federal courts of appeals have split on the issue, and the Clinton administration urged the high court to resolve the disagreement by ruling for a broad reading of the federal discrimination law to cover same-sex harassment.

The case of Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Inc. (No. 96-568) involves a male oil rig worker who was subject to alleged verbal and physical harassment by his male supervisor and male co-workers. The court will hear arguments and decide the case during its next term.

  • Ruled unanimously that government officials sued in state courts under a federal civil rights law do not have an automatic right to appeal a judge's ruling denying them immunity.

School officials and other government policymakers who are sued in federal court under the law known as Section 1983 may appeal a denial of immunity before facing a trial. But the high court said in Johnson v. Fankell (No. 96-292) that the U.S. Constitution does not require states to adopt the same procedures.

  • Agreed to hear Bogan v. Scott-Harris (No. 96-1569), a civil rights dispute involving the Fall River, Mass., City Council.

The court will consider whether members of a local legislative body, such as a city council or school board, are entitled to absolute immunity from federal civil rights suits for legislative actions.

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