Officer’s Ability To Challenge Firing On “Public Policy” Grounds Very Limited

Most police officers and firefighters in the country are covered by either the terms of collective bargaining agreements or civil service laws that provide for an appeal system if the employee believes discipline has been unfairly imposed. In the absence of collective bargaining or civil service, many employees are considered “at will,” in the sense that they can be hired or fired for any reason or no reason at all.

Some at-will officers challenge their discharges on the grounds that their terminations violate “public policy.” As Richard Hibbs, a police officer with the small Washington city of Sultan, recently learned, courts are not receptive to the “public policy” argument.

Hibbs was not covered by either a collective bargaining agreement or by civil service. Hibbs became concerned that the police chief had prematurely ordered evidence destroyed in a rape case, had ordered him to not stop “locals” for minor traffic violations, and had otherwise engaged in a variety of inappropriate conduct. Hibbs took his concerns about the Chief to a City Council member, who in turn relayed them to the City Attorney, City Administrator, the Mayor, and the Police Chief.

The Chief immediately fired Hibbs. Hibbs then sued the City, claiming his discharge violated public policy.

The Washington Court of Appeals rejected Hibbs’ lawsuit. The Court noted that “the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine is a narrow one. It is not based on policies that are of minor scope or significance. Although there is no precise line of demarcation dividing matters that are the subject of public policies from matters purely personal, a survey of cases in other States involving retaliatory discharges shows that a matter must strike at the heart of a citizen’s social rights, duties, and responsibilities before the tort will be allowed.”

In the eyes of the Court, “there was no clear public policy with respect to the Chief’s handling of evidence. Hibbs does not cite either a constitutional provision or a statute or a regulatory code that has been violated. Rather, he in a very generic sense indicates that this violates the general principles of the handling of evidence and exposes the Department, and thereby the public, to harm. This claim does not strike at the heart of the citizen’s social rights, duties, and responsibilities.”

Hibbs v. Town of Sultan, 2005 WL 1009829 (Wash.App. 2005).

This article appears in the June 2005 issue