Public employees are usually thought to have a “liberty” interest in their jobs. The liberty interest, protected by the Fifth Amendment’s due process guarantees, prohibits an employer from making statements about an employee during the termination process where the statements are likely to render the employee unemployable in his chosen trade and profession in the future.
Because of the limited scope of “liberty” rights, “liberty” claims are normally brought by at-will employees who do not otherwise have job protections. At most, an employee’s liberty rights gain the employee the ability to a “name-clearing” hearing prior to termination.
A recent Arizona case provides an example of how limited liberty rights are. The case involved Micah Johnson, a Scottsdale, Arizona police officer. Johnson resigned from his job, contending that he was being pressured by a sergeant to join with the sergeant in the business of repossessing cars. Johnson also contended that the sergeant repeatedly asked him for money. Johnson later stated that he resigned because he could no long endure the pressure from the sergeant.
After Johnson resigned, he requested and the City provided an internal affairs report that had charged Johnson with making false statements in a police report. The City later repeated the charge to the Arizona Police Officer Standards and Training Board, the body charged by law with certifying, suspending, or revoking the credentials of Arizona law enforcement officers. When Johnson’s request for a “name-clearing” hearing from the City was denied, he brought a lawsuit alleging that his liberty rights had been violated.
A federal court dismissed Johnson’s lawsuit. The Court found that for a liberty right to be properly invoked, “a plaintiff must allege that the accuracy of the stigmatizing charge against him is contested, there is some public disclosure of the charge, and the charge is made in connection with the termination of employment.”
The Court acknowledged that though the charge that Johnson made false statements in a police report “would undoubtedly damage the reputation of one in his position, and might impair his future employment prospects, the charge was made after his resignation and the refusal to rehire him. Johnson has therefore failed to allege a liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Johnson v. City of Scottsdale, 2006 WL 120321 (D.Ariz. 2006).
This article appears in the March 2006 issue