Government employees have some rights that private-sector employees don’t have, including so-called liberty and property interests in their jobs. That can include the right to a hearing and an opportunity to present their side of the story before being discharged.
It also includes the right to preserve their reputations—and a potential reputation-clearing hearing following discharge.
Recent case: Lexy Larez worked for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a security screener at St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport. After he was terminated, he sued, alleging that he had been denied a liberty interest in his reputation and a property interest in his employment. He claimed that his personnel file contained false statements that injured his reputation.
The court made quick work of his property interest claim, pointing out that Larez had a chance to tell his side of the story before being terminated.
As to Larez’s claim that his reputation was harmed by allegedly false information contained in his personnel file, the court said he had to show that the information was in fact false, had been publicized and had stigmatized him somehow. In this case, the information was merely placed in a file. There was no evidence it had been published or made available to anyone outside DHS. Plus, he could not show he had been stigmatized since he had found a new job after being fired.
Clearly, even if he were right about the information, his reputation hadn’t suffered. (Larez v. Department of Homeland Security, No. 8:09-1010, MD FL, 2011)
Final note: Private-sector employers also face potential libel and slander liability under state law. That’s why you should make sure that personnel file information remains confidential. That includes ensuring that any information requests include a release from the employee.