Failure To Follow State Law Not Necessarily A Federal Due Process Violation

An Illinois state law requires that counties provide continued group insurance coverage for retirees. The law also requires that the insurance must be provided “at the same premium rate” for non-retired deputies.

On January 1, 2000, the Winnebago County, Illinois Board of Commissioners required that retired deputies pay higher premiums than active deputies pay for active participation in health plans. In addition, as of 2001, retired deputies over the age of 65 were not permitted to enroll or continue participation in the health plans, even though active deputies aged 65 or older were permitted to participate in the plans. A group of retired deputies, led by John Germano, filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the County’s actions violated their due process rights.

A federal Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit. The question in the Court’s mind was not whether Germano had a property right to the continued health insurance. The Court found that issue to be an easy one: “There is no doubt that the Winnebago County policy is in violation of state law. The statute creates a claim of entitlement to retired deputies, therefore, the County’s actions deprived Germano and his class of a constitutionally-protected property interest.”

The real question was whether Germano could claim that his due process rights were violated by the County. The Court based its opinion on a little-used exception to the principles of procedural due process. Under the exception, when the deprivation of a property right by a governmental body is “random and unauthorized,” the action does not violate the due process clause. Put another way, if a state law has clear requirements “containing no loopholes which would allow a deprivation to occur without due process unless the government acted in an unforeseen way,” an individual does not have a claim for violation of due process.

The Court found that the “random and unauthorized” exception applied to Germano’s case. The Court concluded that the actions of the County “clearly contravened established state policy and procedure contained within formal rules, regulations, and statutes. It is clear that the actions of Winnebago County were not authorized by the State; indeed, the actions were in direct violation of state law, and should not be considered a basis for a due process claim.”

Though the Court’s decision may seem to produce a bizarre result, the ending lines of the Court’s opinion reveal the true motivation behind the Court’s approach: “Failure to implement state law violates that state law, not the federal Constitution. The remedy lies in state court

.”

Germano v. Winnebago County, 403 F.3d 926 (7th Cir. 2005).

This article appears in the June 2005 issue