Here’s a worry for public employees who find themselves assigned to participate in pre-termination hearings: If you don’t follow the hearing rules, you just might lose the qualified immunity you ordinarily have for employment decisions—and wind up being sued personally.
To avoid that fate, get your agency’s legal counsel involved to make certain the hearing is litigation-proof.
Recent case: Jerry Riggins worked as a police officer until he was hospitalized for psychiatric problems. He apparently had an episode in which he believed someone was after him, that his hotel room was bugged and that there was a computer chip implanted in his head.
He underwent treatment and got his psychiatrist to clear him for work—with some provisos and accommodations. But instead of working with him, the police department scheduled him for a termination hearing. Riggins was told he could be terminated because he didn’t have an unconditional release to return to work.
Following the termination hearing, the panel formally fired Riggins. He then sued the police department and the panel members, alleging disability discrimination and failure to afford him due process. He argued they had already made the decision to terminate and only held the hearing as a formality. He also argued that nothing in the department rules had ever before required anyone to get an unconditional return-to-work release.
The panel members claimed immunity. But the federal judge let the case go forward, reasoning that there was evidence that at least one panel member was biased and had made up his mind before the hearing. (Riggins v. City of Louisville, et al., No. 06-CV-02261, DC CO, 2008)
Final note: It’s always a good idea to consider accommodations and document those discussions. Refusing to even entertain helping an obviously disabled individual doesn’t play well to a jury.