Utah employee had no constitutional right to continued employment

EMPLOYEE RIGHTS

February 2017
Brinton M. Wilkins
Utah Employment Law Letter

Public employees who have a right to continued employ­ment enjoy constitutional due-process protections that run-of-the-mill at-will employees do not. How can a public employer know if one of its employees enjoys constitutional protection? Well, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (whose decisions apply to all Utah employers) recently clarified that looking at an employee’s employment contract is a good place to start.

School cofounder and director

In 2006, Kim Coleman helped found a public charter school: the Monticello Academy. In 2008, she became the school’s director and signed a contract explicitly stating she was an at-will employee. The school’s board of direc­tors told her that it expected her to work to build a high school for the charter school.

During Coleman’s tenure as the school’s direc­tor, parents complained she did not provide required special education services at the school, and the Utah State Charter Board began an investigation. The charter board ultimately found that Coleman had created an en­vironment in which special education services were not provided as required by law. The charter board directed the school’s board of directors to, among other things, remove Coleman from school operations. However, the school did not do so and elected to put her on adminis­trative leave and perform its own investigation.

Eight months after issuing its findings on Cole­man, the charter board voided them. Shortly after that, however, the charter board issued new findings that reaffirmed its original determination and directed the school’s board of directors to remove Coleman as the school’s director. The charter board made the second set of findings public, and both the Utah Board of Education and the Utah State Office of Education ratified them. After receiving the second set of findings, the school’s board of directors let Coleman’s term of employment ex­pire and did not renew her contract.

Coleman sued the charter board, its members, and its directors, alleging that issuing the findings and di­recting the school’s board of directors to remove her as school director violated her due-process rights under the U.S. Constitution. The trial court ruled against her, and she appealed to the 10th Circuit.

Public employees’ property rights

Unlike private employees, public employees may have a constitutionally protected right to continued employment. Employees with a constitutional right to continued employment cannot be deprived of employ­ment without first receiving due process as required by the Constitution. In other words, the government cannot fire an employee whose right to continued employment is constitutionally protected without first providing adequate notice and a right to be heard. Not all public employees, however, have a constitutionally protected right to continued employment. It was on that point that the 10th Circuit decided that Coleman’s claim came up short.

For a public employee’s right to continued employ­ment to be constitutionally protected, she must show that she actually has a right to continued employment. To do that, she may look to state law, employment contracts, or other evidence that shows she had a right to expect con­tinued employment. Importantly, at-will employees do not have a right to expect continued employment.

Because Coleman was an at-will employee (as ex­plained in the contract she signed), the 10th Circuit held that she did not have a right to continued employment. She tried to avoid that outcome by arguing that the con­tract she signed was a form agreement prepared by a third-party HR firm. But the court rejected her attempt to avoid the contract’s clear language. According to the court, “Coleman signed it and is bound by it.”

Indeed, the court noted that in addition to Coleman’s contract, the school’s charter states that “all employees are ‘at-will.’” Further, the court noted that Utah law “ex­empts charter-school employees from the for-cause sta­tus conferred on some public-school employees.”

Taking another tack, Coleman argued that she had a right to continued employment because there was an implied contract that entitled her to it despite what her written contract stated. As evidence of the alleged im­plied contract, she pointed to the instruction she received to build a high school. However, the court rejected that argument, stating: “Employers hire employees to do tasks. But employees do not get to ignore their contract terms to complete their tasks.”

Finally, Coleman argued that the Utah Charter Schools Act, which outlines procedures the charter board must follow in certain situations, showed she had a constitutionally protected right to continued employ­ment. The 10th Circuit agreed that the Act requires the charter board to notify a school of a problem in writing and give it “reasonable time to remedy the deficiency” before taking corrective action. According to the court, that rule did not grant Coleman constitutional protec­tion because it is merely a rule regarding procedures and does not address underlying substantive rights.

Accordingly, because Coleman was an at-will em­ployee with no right to continued employment, she did not have to be afforded constitutional due process before the charter board issued its findings and instructions. Coleman v. Utah State Charter School Board, et al., No. 15- 4141 (10th Cir., 2016).

Lessons learned

As this decision shows, the terms of an employee’s employment will determine whether she has a consti­tutionally protected property interest in her employ­ment. Courts have clarified that because at-will employ­ees generally may quit or be terminated for any or no reason, they have no proprietary interest in continued employment. Accordingly, if you are a government em­ployer, determine which, if any, of your employees are protected by the Constitution. Doing so will help you decide which procedures you must follow when disci­plining, terminating, or laying off employees.

You can contact the author at bwilkins@kmclaw.com or 801-328-3600.