Takeaway: While public employees often have an entitlement to
continued employment under federal law and thus must receive due process protections
before discharge, that is not always the case. Depending on state law, a city employee
may not have any protections against discharge.
A police officer for Sisseton, S.D., who was hired as an at-will employee could not bring a due process claim under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 or the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
The plaintiff was hired as a law enforcement officer by the Sisseton, S.D., Police Department in January 2021. The plaintiff and the city signed an employment contract requiring the plaintiff to reimburse the city for the cost of her training if she left the department before completing 36 months of employment.
In January 2022, the city’s chief of police informed the plaintiff that she had been accused of including false or inaccurate information in her stopped-vehicle reports. As a result, the Roberts County state’s attorney placed her on a one-year probation and put her name on a list of reported officers made available to local defense attorneys. The chief told her that the Police Commission had lost confidence in her and asked her to resign. The plaintiff signed the memo adding her to the list of reported officers and resigned, but later claimed that she did so under duress and absent any ability to rebut the accusations.
In July 2022, the plaintiff filed a 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 action asserting, along with other claims, that the city, the police chief and other individuals violated her Fourteenth Amendment procedural and substantive due process rights by disciplining and constructively discharging her.
The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss all the plaintiff’s federal claims and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over her state law claims. The district court found that the plaintiff had no protected interest in continued employment and that the city and the police chief had qualified immunity for her claims. The plaintiff appealed the dismissal of her due process claims to the 8th Circuit.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the terms of her employment contract established that she was not an at-will employee under South Dakota law. Rather, the district court erred in determining that her contract did not create contractual rights of employment, she said. She also claimed that the district court erred in granting immunity to the city of Sisseton and to the police chief.
The 8th Circuit found, however, that a contract of employment overcomes the statutory at-will presumption only when it affirmatively indicates the employer’s intent to surrender its at-will power to terminate an employee at any time or for any reason. One such example is an employment contract stating that termination will occur only for cause.
Even though the contract stated that the plaintiff would not have to pay back training expenses if she worked for more than 36 months, it did not protect the plaintiff’s employment for that 36-month period. Rather, the contract expressly reserved the city’s statutory at-will termination rights throughout her employment, even during her first 36 months on the job.
The court further found that, even if the plaintiff could have demonstrated a protected interest in continued employment, the police chief and the city would still be immune from a Section 1983 claim. This was because she had not identified any unconstitutional policy or custom executed by the city or its employees that supported her claims.
The 8th Circuit thus upheld the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims at summary judgment.
LaCoe v. City of Sisseton, 8th Cir., No. 22-3552 (Sept. 19, 2023).
Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Va.