Dixon v. MARTA, A99A2221.

Citation242 Ga. App. 262,529 S.E.2d 398
Decision Date07 February 2000
Docket NumberNo. A99A2221.,A99A2221.
PartiesDIXON et al. v. METROPOLITAN ATLANTA RAPID TRANSIT AUTHORITY et al.
CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Georgia)

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Ward & Frison, Lee A. Frison, Jr., Newnan, Robert M. Goldberg, Atlanta, Michael E. Bergin, Fairburn, for appellants.

Chambers, Mabry, McClelland & Brooks, Walter B. McClelland, Jo Beth Gosdeck, Thomas, Kennedy, Sampson & Patterson, Jeffrey E. Tompkins, Atlanta, Dennis R. Fortin, Decatur, for appellees.

ELLINGTON, Judge.

Eric K. Dixon and James Sprowl appeal from the trial court's order of July 13, 1998, in this suit arising out of Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority's (MARTA's) decision to fire them for allegedly stealing MARTA property. In that order, the court (1) ruled that the appellants' claims, "with the exception of their claim for malicious prosecution[,] are barred by collateral estoppel and res judicata"; (2) denied the appellants' motion for partial summary judgment; and (3) denied the appellants' motion for injunctive and declaratory relief. The appellants also challenge the trial court's order granting MARTA's motion in limine to exclude evidence of an alleged similar transaction. For the following reasons, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

Sprowl and Dixon were employed by MARTA as electrical power technicians. On March 31, 1993, the two were arrested by MARTA police for theft of company property. Samuel Wright, the appellants' supervisor, sent the appellants to meet with George Barlow, the Deputy Director of Maintenance, and Ken McDonald, the appellants' General Foreman. MARTA police officers escorted the appellants to MARTA headquarters, where the meeting continued. When the appellants arrived, they were interviewed by MARTA Officers Dilworth and Holt in the presence of a court reporter. Following the interview, Barlow told the appellants that their employment was being terminated for theft of MARTA property.

Pursuant to a warrant, MARTA police searched Dixon's home and recovered several items allegedly belonging to MARTA. Dixon and Sprowl were arrested, taken to jail, and then released on bail within six hours of the arrest. Although true bills of indictment were returned against both Dixon and Sprowl, the Fulton County District Attorney eventually placed those indictments on the dead docket. The appellants then sought reinstatement of their employment by filing grievances first with their supervisor, then the maintenance director, and then with the Director of Labor Relations, Lewis Glenn. When these requests were denied, the appellants petitioned their union to arbitrate their grievances. The union agreed.

MARTA and the union submitted the grievances to the American Arbitration Association. MARTA agreed to honor the arbitrator's decision with respect to both Dixon's and Sprowl's grievances, although only Dixon's grievance would be heard. The appellants and MARTA were represented during the arbitration by their authorized union representatives, not by their attorneys. Although the arbitrator found that one witness, Thaddeus Lewis, had seen Dixon taking MARTA property from the premises, the arbitrator concluded that MARTA had not met its burden of proving that Dixon committed a theft and that, consequently, MARTA lacked "just cause" for firing him. The arbitrator ordered that Dixon be returned to his former position with back pay, all benefits, and seniority and that MARTA purge from his personnel file all references to the theft. After the award was entered, Dixon's former attorney and MARTA's representative asked the arbitrator to clarify whether Dixon's back pay should be reduced by amounts he earned while employed elsewhere. The arbitrator then entered a "Clarification Order" stating that Dixon's back pay should be reduced by all sums earned during the period he was terminated. The appellants were reimbursed back pay less those sums, and in April 1994, the appellants were reinstated to their jobs and their seniority within MARTA and their department.

In October 1996, the appellants sued MARTA and Thaddeus Lewis, alleging malicious prosecution, slander, and damage to reputation. The appellants amended their complaint in June 1997 to add claims for breach of the arbitrator's award, continuing nuisance arising from MARTA's alleged use of police officers who fabricated or spoliated evidence, and alleged deprivations of the appellants' rights, privileges, and immunities arising under the Georgia Constitution.

1. The appellants contend the trial court erred in denying their motion for partial summary judgment on their claim that their immediate termination violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the Georgia and United States Constitutions. Appellants contend they should have been suspended with pay and given notice and a hearing prior to being terminated. This argument depends on a finding that appellants had a protected property interest in their employment. See Bd. of Regents &c. v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577, 92 S.Ct. 2701, 33 L.Ed.2d 548 (1972). Based upon language found in the "Grievances" section of the Labor Agreement then effective between MARTA and Amalgamated Transit Union Division 732, appellants claim they are not terminable-at-will employees. They argue that the agreement's grievance procedure created a property interest in their continued employment because it provided that MARTA may be required to reinstate employees to their employment if an arbitrator found they were terminated without "just cause." We disagree with the appellants' interpretation of the Labor Agreement.

In Georgia, "[g]enerally, one in public employment has no vested right to such employment." Barnes v. Mendonsa, 110 Ga.App. 464, 465(2), 138 S.E.2d 914 (1964). Unless the employment arrangement is modified by additional contractual or statutory provisions, the "power to hire carries with it the implied power to fire." Richmond County v. Jackson, 234 Ga. 717, 719(1), 218 S.E.2d 11 (1975); see Brownlee v. Williams, 233 Ga. 548, 555(2), 212 S.E.2d 359 (1975). In deciding whether a person possesses a property interest, a court must carefully sift through abstract needs and unilateral expectations until it locates a legitimate claim of entitlement. Bd. of Regents &c. v. Roth, 408 U.S. at 577, 92 S.Ct. 2701. The source of such interests is not to be found in the Constitution. Rather their existence and dimensions are defined by "existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law-rules or understandings that secure certain benefits and that support claims of entitlement to those benefits." Id. The right to continued employment may arise where there is a guarantee of employment for a fixed term, see Lentz v. City Council of Augusta, 48 Ga.App. 555, 556(1), 173 S.E. 406 (1934), or where the employment allows termination only for cause, Brownlee v. Williams, 233 Ga. at 555(2), 212 S.E.2d 359 (construing Civil Service Act of Fulton County). A property interest in employment can be created by local ordinance or by implied contract. Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 344, 96 S.Ct. 2074, 48 L.Ed.2d 684 (1976).

Appellants cite Lewis v. Hillsborough Transit Auth., 726 F.2d 664 (11th Cir.1983), for the proposition that an employee may have a protected property interest in continued employment by virtue of a collective bargaining agreement entered into between the employer and the employee's union. We decline to address, at this time, whether a collective bargaining...

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