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Prepare for the worst: Public employees can sue even for being suspended

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Government employees frequently have a constitutional right to notice and some sort of a hearing before losing their jobs. And according to a recent federal appeals court decision, that right sometimes extends to a suspension or some other discipline that stops short of termination.

That’s especially true if the discipline is accompanied by negative publicity that can be traced back to the public employer.

Recent case:
Robert Dee worked as a firefighter for about 18 years, mostly in a full-time position. Then, without notice, the borough he worked for suspended him because he allegedly lacked the latest training. The next day, the local paper carried a headline that read, “Firefighters suspended for not completing required training.”

As it turned out, Dee didn’t need the training—he had been grandfathered in because of his long service. The department eventually reinstated him, but Dee sued anyway, alleging a constitutional deprivation of his right to liberty and property.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said he should have his day in court. It reasoned that Dee’s firefighter job was a property interest, and that a suspension could be seen as an adverse action that required the employee to at least hear about the charges against him and have some sort of opportunity to set the record straight.

The court added that the link between the newspaper article and the decision-makers made the situation worse. (Dee v. Borough of Dunmore, et al., No. 07-1720, 3rd Cir., 2008)

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