Under some circumstances, North Carolina government employees may be entitled to due process if they have a “property interest” in their jobs. That means they get a hearing and a chance to defend themselves before being terminated.
Smart public employers can, however, limit that possibility by making sure that nothing in their employment policies creates a property interest in a job. They can protect their rights to fire at-will employees by making sure any HR policies include a clear contract disclaimer and by not officially adopting those policies as ordinances.
Recent case: Rick Roberson, who is black and over age 40, worked as the director of HR for the city of Goldsboro until he was fired. He sued, alleging that Goldsboro had adopted an HR policy that allowed the city manager to discipline employees, but also required written notice and the rights of employees to present their versions of events.
But the city pointed out that the policy was never adopted as an ordinance. In other words, it never became law. Plus, the policy specifically stated, “The City reserves the right to maintain an employment at will doctrine,” and “none of the benefits or policies … are intended … to confer any right or privilege upon any employee. These benefits do not entitle any employee to be or remain employed by the City of Goldsboro.”
The court dismissed Roberson’s claims that he had a property interest in the job and said he wasn’t entitled to a hearing. (Roberson v. City of Goldsboro, No. 5:07-CV-429, ED NC, 2008)
Final note: Don’t let your employee handbook or personnel policies become binding contracts. Disclaim contractual obligations early and often. It’s a good idea to have employees acknowledge in writing when they receive the handbook that they understand they are at-will employees who can be fired for any reason or no reason at all (other than illegal reasons, of course). Consult counsel for advice on wording.
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