Grievance Procedure, Standing Alone, Does Not Create Property Right In Job

David Conley was a police officer for the Town of Elkton, Virginia. In the Spring of 2003, Conley made several statements regarding the Police Department to the Chief and the Mayor. Conley complained about another officer who used his police radio for personal matters after work. The officer frequently called the Department in an intoxicated state and demanded that Conley drive him home.

Conley also complained about the lack of work performed by the Police Department, and expressed his concerns over whether the Department was properly serving the citizens.

The Chief met with the Town Council in an executive session. Conley alleged that the Chief made numerous statements to the Town Council about Conley’s political affiliation and support for a particular candidate for sheriff in Rockingham County. Based on the information provided by the Chief, the Town Council fired Conley.

Conley filed a lawsuit against the Town, claiming his termination violated his free speech and due process rights. The Town promptly moved to have both claims dismissed. The Court refused to dismiss Conley’s free speech claims, holding that his statements were about a matter of public concern and that Conley’s rights to make the statements needed to be balanced against the Department’s need for internal discipline.

The Court was less impressed by Conley’s due process claim, however. In order to have a property right to the job, an employee must have a reasonable expectation of continued employment in the job. “At-will” employees, such as those working in most small towns in Virginia, generally have no such reasonable expectation of continued employment, and thus have no property rights to the job. In the absence of a property right, an employer generally need not follow procedural due process prior to terminating the employee.

Conley argued that he had a reasonable expectation of continued employment based on the Town’s grievance procedure, which provided for notice and an opportunity to respond prior to termination. The Court was not only unconvinced that the grievance procedure applied to Conley, but it also concluded that the grievance procedure did not vest with Conley a continuing expectation of employment. Rather, the Court found that “even if the Town’s grievance procedure was available to police officers, this would not undermine the Town Council’s power to remove police officers at its pleasure. Conley did not have a constitutionally-protected property interest in his continued employment with the Police Department, and his procedural due process claim must be dismissed as a matter of law.”

Conley v. Town of Elkton, 2005 WL 415897 (W.D.Va. 2005).

This article appears in the April 2005 issue