Uninvolved Decision Makers Not Required In Small Town

Louisville, Colorado is a city of slightly less than 20,000 people. Jerry Riggins was employed as a police officer with the Louisville Police Department. In May 2004, he experienced a psychiatric episode in which he complained that someone was after him, his hotel room was bugged, and there was a computer chip implanted in his head. His wife reported the incident, and he was taken to a hospital and placed on a mental health hold. Eventually, the City terminated him because of his mental condition.

The City’s disciplinary decision started with a recommendation made by the Police Chief to the Human Resources Director and City Manager. The City Manager and Human Resources Director concurred with the decision.

The City has a three-stage internal appeals process for discharges. The first is a hearing before the Police Chief. The second stage is a hearing before the Human Resources Director, and the third stage is a hearing before the City Manager. When all of these appeals processes proved unsuccessful, Riggins filed a federal court lawsuit alleging that the City’s appeals system deprived him of due process because it did not call for an impartial process.

The federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Riggins. The Court found that “mere familiarity with the facts of a case gained by an agency does not disqualify a decision maker and demonstrate actual bias. Moreover, an administrative tribunal member is not disqualified because that member has ruled strongly against a party in a prior hearing or because he or she may have participated in the initiation of the proceedings.

“In many small public agencies human resource personnel wear multiple hats. Thus, the contention that the combination of investigative and adjudicative functions necessarily creates an unconstitutional risk of bias in administrative adjudication has a difficult burden of persuasion to carry. Involvement of tribunal members in earlier proceedings in the same case does not overcome the presumption of honesty and integrity. Exposure to evidence presented in a nonadversary investigative procedure is insufficient in itself to impugn the fairness of a later adversary hearing.”

Had Riggins presented any evidence of actual bias, the Court observed, its results would have been different. However, the Court found that Riggins failed to point to any evidence that the Chief, the City Manager, or the Human Resources Director had any personal bias against him.

Riggins v. Goodman, 572 F.3d 1101 (10th Cir. 2009).

This article appears in the November 2009 issue