Delaware Supreme Court Defines ‘Just Cause’ For Police Chiefs

Robbin Vann was the Police Chief for the Town of Cheswold, Delaware. The Town terminated Vann’s employment after the Town Council held a due process hearing. Eventually, Vann’s appeal of his discharge ended up before a trial court judge.

The trial Court found 15 reasons for Vann’s termination: (1) Vann permitted officers to work overtime and disregarded a directive from the mayor and Town Council; (2) Vann refused to meet with the mayor and Town manager; (3) Vann procured three mobile phones and allowed his wife and another officer to use them for personal calls; (4) Vann violated a directive from the mayor and Town Council and provided another officer with a key to the police evidence room; (5) Vann was frequently away from his office during work hours; (6) Vann left work without closing the door to his office on one occasion; (7) Vann exhibited disrespect toward the mayor in the presence of other Cheswold employees; (8) Vann made purchases without following the Town’s requisition and purchase order process; (9) Vann insubordinately failed to follow the mayor’s guidance; (10) Vann approached the mayor with a closed fist, bumped the mayor’s arm, and caused the mayor to fear for his safety; (11) Vann scheduled officers to double coverage at some times while leaving no coverage at other times; (12) Vann made false and derogatory comments concerning the management of the Town; (13) Vann refused to speak to the Town manager; (14) Vann falsified information to the mayor; and (15) Vann refused to follow the mayor’s written policies.

Vann appealed his discharge to the Supreme Court of Delaware. Vann argued that a state statute required that an employer have “just cause” to terminate a police chief. Vann’s argument focused the Court on what the definition of “just cause” should be for police chiefs.

The Court held that “just cause means a legally sufficient reason supported by job-related factors that rationally and logically touch upon the employee’s competency and ability to perform his duties. The definition clarifies that the reason for termination must be job-related and cannot simply be a trumped up pre-textual excuse for termination. In these cases, police procedural manuals and other reference guides about best practices will significantly help determine legally sufficient reasons for termination related to job performance and competency.”

Applying this definition, the Court found that the 15 reasons for Vann’s termination amply demonstrated that the Town had just cause to terminate Vann’s employment.

Vann v. Town of Cheswold, 2008 WL 516659 (Del.Supr. 2008).

This article appears in the May 2008 issue