At-Will Police Officers Have No Appeal Rights When Fired

Most law enforcement officers and firefighters in the country have some sort of job protections. Those protections usually are created by a union contract, but also exist in the forms of civil service and local personnel systems. A relatively small minority – and a minority that continues to shrink in size – are considered “at-will” employees without any job protections at all except the general protections of the federal Constitution.

A group of police officers for the City of Floresville, Texas, recently learned that “at-will” employees have no appeal rights if they are fired. Armando Chapa, Darrell Newman, and Mario Dominguez were police officers assigned to the City’s 81st Judicial Narcotics Task Force. In the spring of 2002, the Texas Department of Public Safety acquired supervisory authority over the Task Force and required the officers, along with all members of the Task Force, to re-apply for their positions. Chapa and Dominguez re-applied, but Newman did not. None of the three were re-hired by the City, and their employment was terminated.

The three officers filed suit against the City for breach of contract, tortious interference with a business relationship, and defamation. In time, the case focused on whether the three officers had any sort of contractual relationship with the City that provided job protections.

The Texas Court of Appeals found no evidence of a contract. The Court stated the general rule that “absent a specific agreement to the contrary, there is a presumption in Texas that employment is at-will. An employee may rebut this presumption by proving the existence of an employment contract in which the employer has indicated a definite intent to be bound not to terminate the employment except under clearly-specified circumstances. In order to overcome the presumption of at-will employment, an employee manual must specifically and expressly limit the employer’s right to terminate the employee.”

The Court found that the City’s employee policy manual did not alter the at-will employment relationship. The employee policy manual stated that an employee could be dismissed for cause and contained a list of censurable conduct, creating an implication of job protections. However, the manual specifically provided that the City’s right to terminate an employee was not limited, and specifically stated that “all employees are at-will, and as such, are free to resign at any time with or without reason. The City, likewise, retains the right to terminate employment at any time with or without reason or notice. Nothing contained in these guidelines is intended to be nor should be construed as a guarantee that employment will be continued for any period of time.”

Concluding that the manual did not limit the City’s right to terminate employees, the Court found that even if City’s termination of the three officers was completely baseless, the City’s decision could not be challenged through the court system absent evidence of a constitutional violation.

Chapa v. City of Floresville, 2005 WL 2989342 (Tex.App. 2005).

This article appears in the December 2005 issue