426 U.S. 341 (1976), 74-1303, Bishop v. Wood

Docket Nº:No. 74-1303
Citation:426 U.S. 341, 96 S.Ct. 2074, 48 L.Ed.2d 684
Party Name:Bishop v. Wood
Case Date:June 10, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 341

426 U.S. 341 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 2074, 48 L.Ed.2d 684

Bishop

v.

Wood

No. 74-1303

United States Supreme Court

June 10, 1976

Argued March 1, 1976

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

On respondent Chief of Police's recommendation, respondent City Manager terminated [96 S.Ct. 2076] petitioner's employment as a policeman without a hearing, telling him privately that the dismissal was based on a failure to follow orders, poor attendance at police training classes, causing low morale, and conduct unsuited to an officer. A city ordinance provides that a permanent city employee (as petitioner was classified) may be discharged if he fails to perform work up to the standard of his classification, or if he is negligent, inefficient, or unfit to perform his duties. Petitioner brought suit against respondents, claiming that, as a "permanent employee" he had a constitutional right to a pre-termination hearing; that the ordinance, even though not expressly so providing, should be read to prohibit discharge for any reason other than those specified, and therefore to confer tenure on all permanent employees; that his period of service, together with his "permanent" classification, gave him a sufficient expectation of continued employment to constitute a protected property interest under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and that the false explanation for his discharge deprived him of interest in liberty protected by that Clause. During pretrial discovery, petitioner was again advised of the reasons for his dismissal. The District Court granted respondents' motion for a summary judgment, holding, on the basis of its understanding of state law, that petitioner "held his position at the will and pleasure of the city." The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held:

1. Under the District Court's tenable view of state law, which was upheld by the Court of Appeals and which will be accepted by this Court in the absence of any authoritative state court interpretation of the ordinance involved, petitioner's discharge did not deprive him of a property interest protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 343-347.

2. Assuming that the explanation for petitioner's discharge was false, as this Court must do, since summary judgment was entered against him, such false explanation did not deprive him of an interest in liberty protected by that Clause. Pp. 347-349.

Page 342

(a) Since the City Manager's private oral communication to petitioner of the reasons for his discharge was never made public, it cannot properly form the basis for a claim that petitioner's interest in his "good name, reputation, honor, or integrity" was thereby impaired. Nor can the communication of such reasons during pretrial discovery provide retroactive support for such claim, since it was made in the course of a judicial proceeding that did not commence until after petitioner had suffered his alleged injury. Pp. 348-349.

(b) The truth or falsity of the City Manager's explanation determines whether or not his decision to discharge petitioner was correct or prudent, but neither enhances nor diminishes petitioner's claim that his constitutionally protected interest in liberty was impaired. P. 349.

Affirmed. See 48 F.2d 1341.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 350. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 355. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 361.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Acting on the recommendation of the Chief of Police, the City Manager of Marion, N.C. terminated petitioner's employment as a policeman without affording him a hearing to determine the sufficiency of the cause for his discharge. Petitioner brought suit contending

Page 343

that, since a City ordinance classified him as a "permanent employee," he had a constitutional right to a pre-termination hearing.1 During pretrial discovery, petitioner was advised that his [96 S.Ct. 2077] dismissal was based on a failure to follow certain orders, poor attendance at police training classes, causing low morale, and conduct unsuited to an officer. Petitioner and several other police officers filed affidavits essentially denying the truth of these charges. The District Court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment.2 The Court of Appeals affirmed,3 and we granted certiorari, 423 U.S. 890.

The questions for us to decide are (1) whether petitioner's employment status was a property interest protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,4 and, (2) assuming that the explanation for his discharge was false, whether that false explanation deprived him of an interest in liberty protected by that Clause.

I

Petitioner was employed by the city of Marion as a probationary policeman on June 9, 1969. After six months, he became a permanent employee. He was dismissed on March 31, 1972. He claims that he had either an express or an implied right to continued employment.

Page 344

A city ordinance provides that a permanent employee may be discharged if he fails to perform work up to the standard of his classification, or if he is negligent, inefficient, or unfit to perform his duties.5 Petitioner first contends that, even though the ordinance does not expressly so provide, it should be read to prohibit discharge for any other reason, and therefore to confer tenure on all permanent employees. In addition, he contends that his period of service, together with his "permanent" classification, gave him a sufficient expectancy of continued employment to constitute a protected property interest.

A property interest in employment can, of course, be created by ordinance, or by an implied contract.6 In either case, however, the sufficiency of the claim of entitlement must be decided by reference to state law.7

Page 345

The North Carolina Supreme Court has held that an enforceable expectation of continued public employment in that State can exist only if the employer by statute or contract, has actually granted some form of guarantee. Still v. Lance, 279 N.C. 254, 182 S.E.2d 403 (1971). Whether such a guarantee has been given can be determined only by an examination of the particular statute or ordinance in question.

[96 S.Ct. 2078] On its face, the ordinance on which petitioner relies may fairly be read as conferring such a guarantee. However, such a reading is not the only possible interpretation; the ordinance may also be construed as granting no right to continued employment, but merely conditioning an employee's removal on compliance with certain specified procedures.8 We do not have any authoritative interpretation of this ordinance by a North Carolina state court. We do, however, have the opinion of the United States District Judge who, of course, sits in North Carolina and practiced law there for many years. Based on his understanding of state law, he concluded that petitioner "held his position at the will and pleasure of the city."9 This construction of North

Page 346

Carolina law was upheld by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, albeit by an equally divided court. In comparable circumstances, this Court has accepted the interpretation of state law in which the District Court and the Court of Appeals have concurred even if an examination of the state law issue without such guidance might have justified a different conclusion.10

Page 347

In this case, as the District Court construed the ordinance, the City Manager's determination of the adequacy of the grounds for discharge is not subject to judicial review; the employee is merely given certain procedural rights which the District Court found not to have been violated in this case. The District Court's reading of the ordinance is tenable; it derives some support from a decision of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Still v. Lance, supra; and it was accepted by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. These reasons are sufficient to foreclose our independent examination of the state law issue.

Under that view of the law, petitioner's discharge did not deprive him of a property interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

II

Petitioner's claim that he has been deprived of liberty has two components. He contends that the reasons given for his discharge are so serious as to constitute a stigma that may severely damage his reputation in the community; in addition, he claims that those reasons were false.

In our appraisal of petitioner's claim, we must accept his version of the facts, since the District Court granted summary judgment against him.11 His evidence established

Page 348

that he was a competent police officer; that he was respected by his peers; that he made more arrests than any other officer on the force; that, although he had been criticized for engaging in high-speed pursuits, he had promptly heeded such criticism; and that he had a reasonable explanation for his imperfect attendance at police training sessions. We must therefore assume that his discharge was a mistake, and based on incorrect information.

In Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, we recognized that the nonretention of an untenured college teacher might make him somewhat less attractive to other employers, but nevertheless concluded that it would stretch the concept too far "to suggest that a person is deprived of `liberty' when he simply is not rehired in one job, but remains as free as before to seek another." Id. at 575. This same conclusion applies to the discharge of a public employee whose position is terminable at the will of the employer when there is no public...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP