Michael Burke was the Police Chief of the City of Evansdale, Iowa. In 2006, allegations of sexual harassment were raised against Burke. The City ended up terminating Burke without giving him a pre-disciplinary hearing.
Burke filed a lawsuit, contending that he had a contractual – and thus a due process – right to a pre-disciplinary hearing. Burke argued that the employee handbook covering all City employees was the source of the right to a hearing.
The employee handbook specifically states that “an employee may be demoted or suspended after a prior notification by the mayor, or may be terminated after a pre-termination hearing before the mayor.”
The employee handbook also has several “disclaimers.” Most significantly, the employee handbook states that “the employee handbook is not intended to create any contractual rights in favor of the employee or the City. This handbook is not to be construed as an employment contract or as a promise that the employee will be employed for any specific period of time. Except for employees covered by civil service and/or a bargaining contract, employment can be terminated at any time by either you or the City.”
The Iowa Court of Appeals held that the Handbook’s disclaimers overrode the specific requirement in the Handbook for a pre-termination hearing. The Court found that “a reasonable person reading the disclaimer could not expect that the City intended to be bound by the Handbook provisions, including the termination procedures. The disclaimers are unambiguous, conspicuous, and clearly indicate the City intended not to create a contract. The mayor and City had no contractual duty to provide Burke with a pre-termination hearing by virtue of the employee handbook.”
The Court acknowledged that other states take a different approach to disclaimers in an employee handbook and that the usual rule is that general disclaimers do not override specific grants of disciplinary procedures in a handbook. However, the Court held that “we have declined to restrict disclaimers and instead construe them in the same manner as other language in the handbook” even in light of the law in other states.
Burke v. Mardis, 2009 WL 249865 (Iowa App. 2009).
This article appears in the March 2009 issue