Bill Of Rights Does Not Apply to Non-Disciplinary Terminations

Sean Sullivan was a police officer with the City of East Providence, Rhode Island. On October 19, 2005, while on duty, Sullivan experienced chest pain, sweating, dizziness, and pain in his right arm. He was taken to the hospital and was diagnosed with malignant hypertension and stress. Eventually, it was determined that Sullivan’s medical condition was unrelated to his work.

When Sullivan was still not able return to work after six months, the Department notified him that he was permanently discharged. In its letter of termination, the Department explained that “the separation of service is non-disciplinary as it is a consequence of your inability to return to work based on a non-work-related illness.”

Sullivan’s labor organization, Local 569 of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, sued the City, contending that the Department violated Sullivan’s due process rights when it discharged him without a hearing as mandated by Rhode Island’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. The Rhode Island Supreme Court turned away the lawsuit, finding that the Bill of Rights did not apply to non-disciplinary terminations.

The Court found that “after Sullivan’s doctors diagnosed him unfit for regular service as a police officer based on a non-work-related ailment, but capable of performing light duty, he left work and never returned. It is undisputed that the Department neither investigated Sullivan nor alleged that he was involved in any misconduct. Thus, the procedural protections that permanent, full-time police officers are afforded under the Bill of Rights are wholly unavailable to Sullivan in this instance.

“This Court has declared on numerous occasions that the Bill of Rights is the exclusive remedy for permanently appointed law enforcement officers who are under investigation and subject to disciplinary action by a law enforcement agency for noncriminal allegations of misconduct. The right to a hearing under the Bill of Rights simply does not vest until the Chief or someone in a comparable position indicates that one of the sanctions envisioned by the Bill of Rights will be imposed upon the individual who has been charged with a violation of departmental rules and regulations.”

International Brotherhood of Police Officers v. City of East Providence, 2010 WL 668032 (R.I. 2010).

This article appears in the April 2010 issue