Police Chief May Have Due Process Rights

Police Chief May Have Due Process Rights

Written on 09/20/2019
Will Aitchison

In 2013, the Village of University Park, Illinois hired Eddie Bradley as its police chief. In the occasionally tumultuous world of small-town politics, this didn’t last long, and soon after a municipal election in 2015, the mayor and Village Board placed Bradley on administrative leave. The Village fired him 13 days later, without giving him notice of good cause or an opportunity to be heard.

The letter from the Board terminating Bradley did not try to justify his firing based on any sort of good cause. Instead, the letter stated that he was being ousted by operation of state law because his employment contract extended his tenure beyond the term of the Village officeholders who had appointed him. This meant, according to the Village Board, that Bradley’s appointment as police chief terminated as of May 15, 2015 without needing a Board vote, a statement of reasons, or a hearing. Bradley responded with a letter demanding an opportunity to be heard. He received no answer.

Bradley sued, contending he had due process rights to his job. The federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and sent the matter back to a trial court for a hearing.

The Court cited the fact that Bradley’s termination “did not comply with the termination provisions of Bradley’s employment contract, the requirements of state law, or – critical to this case – the 14th Amendment. To effect Bradley’s removal, Illinois state law required the Village to follow a process set forth in Illinois statutes. This process requires a statement of the reasons for such removal or discharge, which must be voted on by the Village’s corporate authorities before the discharge may take effect. The process also includes a fair and impartial hearing of the charges in front of the Village’s board of fire and police commissioners. These procedures would, if followed, satisfy the basic federal constitutional requirement that the Village offer its tenured employees notice and an opportunity to be heard before firing them, a right that does not depend on a demonstration of certain success.

“Thus, in the normal course of terminating a public employee who has a property interest in his or her job, the root requirement of the due process clause is the provision of adequate notice and some kind of a hearing to a public employee before he is deprived of any significant property interest. To be clear, Bradley is not complaining about the adequacy of his notice or the procedural details of a hearing. All parties agree: he received no process at all.

“In contrast, plaintiffs in public employee due process cases often argue that their rights to due process were violated when state or local officials failed to comply with additional procedural details set forth in state statutes or local ordinances. State and local governments are free to provide more robust protections and detailed procedures for firing and disciplining public employees than is constitutionally required. Many have done so. Those detailed procedural codes are easier to administer than having to devise ad hoc procedures in each case.

“As we have written for decades, however, those additional procedural details in state and local law should not be confused with the minimal federal constitutional requirements of pre-deprivation notice and an opportunity to be heard. Furthermore, just as a violation of state law does not a constitutional claim make, so the state law violation does not protect officials from the federal consequences of their otherwise-unconstitutional conduct, as Supreme Court precedent has established the indifference of constitutional norms to the content of state law. In sum, the simultaneous violation of both federal and state law does not provide defendants with a defense to liability, nor does the existence of a state remedy bar aggrieved plaintiffs from pursuing federal claims.”

Bradley v. Village of University Park, 2019 WL 3121844 (7th Cir. 2019).