By Nicole D. Prysby, J.D.
Procedures set forth in New York state law do not serve as “clearly established law” for purposes of qualified immunity from a federal due process suit, plus, the process provided to the state university employee was adequate for due process purposes.
The president of a New York state university is entitled to qualified immunity on federal due process claims brought by a terminated employee, even though the president did not follow procedures required under the New York Civil Service Law (NYCSL), a Second Circuit panel held. The district court found the president was not entitled to qualified immunity because he violated state law requirements by failing to provide written notice, a copy of the charges, and a time period in which the employee could respond before taking disciplinary action against him. But the appeals court reversed, holding that a defendant that breaches the state’s civil service law has not necessarily violated clearly established federal due process law (Tooly v. Schwaller, March 20, 2019, Calabresi, G.).
Discharge. After several incidents in which he acted aggressively or erratically, or walked off the job without permission, the employee, a motor vehicle operator at SUNY-Potsdam, was placed on involuntary leave and was required to undergo a medical exam. He was fired after he failed twice to appear for the evaluation, and then did not report for an interrogation meeting to discuss the situation.
A letter included with the termination notice stated that the termination was effective 14 days after receipt of notice and that the employee could challenge it by filing a grievance within that time period. However, the termination notice itself, and an additional letter from the SUNY president, stated that termination was effective as of the date of the letter. SUNY noticed the inconsistent dates and sent a new letter withdrawing the previous notice, making the termination effective 14 days from the date of the second notice, and providing information on filing a grievance. The employee claimed that he attempted to file a grievance but failed because he was provided the wrong address.
Due process claims. The employee sued SUNY and several individual defendants, including the (former) university president, for deprivation of due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as an Equal Protection claim and claims under the New York State Human Rights Law. The district court denied summary judgment to the SUNY president on the procedural due process claim, finding that he did not have qualified immunity because he violated some requirements of the NYCSL. The president appealed that issue to the Second Circuit.
NYCSL requirements don’t matter. New York law requires that prior to ordering a medical exam of an employee, a public employer must give written notice to the employee of the facts providing the basis for the order. It also requires that, when taking disciplinary action, the employer must provide written notice, a copy of the charges, and a time period for the employee to respond. The district court concluded that since the president did not satisfy those requirements, he was not entitled to qualified immunity. But the Second Circuit reversed because the procedures set forth in New York state law do not settle the question of what protection is required by the federal due process clause.
A state statute does not serve as “clearly established law” for purposes of qualified immunity from federal suit. Since a violation of state law does not per se result in a violation of the federal Due Process Clause; therefore, it cannot per se defeat qualified immunity. In this case, although there may be some overlap between the requirements of federal due process and the requirements of the NYCSL, they are not “inherently coextensive.” Therefore, a defendant that violates the NYCSL has not necessarily violated clearly established federal due process law.
Property interest. The appeals court considered whether the actions taken against the employee deprived him of a property interest sufficient to trigger federal due process requirements. The first action, placing him on involuntary leave, did not, because it was paid leave. The termination, however, was a sufficient deprivation of the employee’s protected property interest to require due process.
Process was adequate. The court then considered whether the process provided to the employee was adequate. In the letters telling him to appear for medical evaluations, the employee was instructed that his failure to appear could subject him to disciplinary action. Likewise, the letter informing him of the disciplinary interrogation meeting did not mention the missed medical exams, but did advise him that failure to report may be grounds for disciplinary action.
The president argued that the employee would have received all of the necessary information had he attended the interrogation meeting, but the court found that it did not need to decide the case on that basis. No case has held that, where the defendant provides an opportunity for the plaintiff to receive due process at a meeting and the plaintiff, even for potentially valid reasons, fails to appear, the defendant must provide alternative procedures. Nor has any case established that the procedures required to satisfy due process may not be provided at that same hearing or that they must be provided in a particular manner not satisfied here. Therefore, the SUNY president did not violate the employee’s clearly established rights, and he is entitled to qualified immunity.
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