Extensive Disciplinary Procedures Do Not Create Property Right To Job

Carey Faulkner was employed by the City of Bartlett, Tennessee as a police officer beginning in 1999. On August 18, 2007, Faulkner held a party at her home which was attended by neighbors and police officer trainees. Drinking and nude swimming took place at the party, and Faulkner’s husband was subsequently charged with sexually assaulting one of the party guests.

The local media reported about Faulkner’s party and previous actions for which she had been disciplined by the Department. In 1999, Faulkner was disciplined following an incident involving nude swimming at an apartment complex. In 2002, she had been disciplined after getting on stage at a topless club with a topless dancer.

After an investigation, the Department fired Faulkner. Faulkner filed a lawsuit challenging her termination, arguing that her procedural due process rights were violated.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld Faulkner’s discharge. The Court found that to be entitled to due process, an employee had to have a “property right” to the job. The Court described a property right as a “legitimate claim of entitlement to the job.”

Faulkner pointed to the City’s personnel rules, which set forth not only a list of potential disciplinary offenses, but also a procedure for challenging discipline. Faulkner argued that through its charter and personnel manual, the City had effectively created a civil service merit system assuring her of due process rights.

The Court did not see it the same way. The Court ruled that “Faulkner was not employed for a definite term, and nothing in the record before us required ‘just cause’ before she could be terminated. Nothing in the personnel manual limited the City’s right to terminate her to any set of enumerated reasons. Despite the grievance procedure, the personnel manual explicitly recognized that immediate formal disciplinary action, including immediate discharge, was permissible. Because Faulkner was an employee at will, she had no protected property interest that would give rise to due process consideration.”

Faulkner v. City of Bartlett, 2009 WL 1841743 (Tenn. App. 2009).

This article appears in the September 2009 issue