Statute Can Create Due Process Rights

Anthony Sawl, who has approximately 25 years of law enforcement experience, was hired as a patrol officer for the West Kittanning, Pennsylvania Police Department in October 2005, and was promoted to Lieutenant in January 2007. The Department employs fewer than three full-time officers.

On September 29, 2007, a City Council member was involved in an incident at an event held at a local fire hall where the organizers had obtained a permit to serve alcoholic beverages. According to the police reports filed by Sawl and his subordinate patrol officer, attendees of the party were consuming alcohol behind the bar, a liquor code violation. When the officers approached the individuals drinking behind the bar, the City Council member hindered the officers’ investigation repeatedly and stated in a threatening tone that he would “get to the bottom of this and find out who complained and take this up at a council meeting.” In addition to describing the City Council member’s “acts of official oppression” and interference with a police investigation, the incident reports also recorded the Council member’s harassment of another attendee of the party, disorderly conduct, and public intoxication. Subsequent to this incident, Sawl filed criminal harassment charges against three individuals, including three City Council members who were in attendance.

Two days later, the City Council held a special meeting and fired Sawl. The City did not notify Sawl of this special meeting, nor was he given a warning that his job was in jeopardy or a reason why he was terminated. Sawl was not given a hearing before or after his termination, and the Council did not provide Sawl with a statement of the charges against him.

Sawl brought a federal court lawsuit, contending that he was deprived of his right to procedural due process. The City moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Sawl did not have a property interest in his job, and therefore was not entitled to due process.

A federal district court disagreed, and allowed Sawl’s lawsuit to proceed. The Court held that “state law determines whether or not an individual has a property interest in his government employment. A Pennsylvania public employee has at-will status and does not have a property interest in his employment, unless there is express legislative language to the contrary.”

The Court found such “express legislative language” in what is known as the Police Tenure Act. The Act provides that “no person employed as a regular full-time police officer in any police department of any township of the second class, or any borough or township of the first class within the scope of this Act, with the exception of policemen appointed for a probationary period of one year or less, shall be suspended, removed or reduced in rank except for the following reasons: (1) Physical or mental disability affecting his ability to continue in service, in which case the person shall receive an honorable discharge from service; (2) neglect or violation of any official duty; (3) violation of any law which provides that such violation constitutes a misdemeanor or felony; (4) inefficiency, neglect, intemperance, disobedience of orders, or conduct unbecoming an officer; (5) intoxication while on duty. A person so employed shall not be removed for religious, racial or political reasons. A written statement of any charges made against any person so employed shall be furnished to such person within five days after the same are filed.”

In the Court’s eyes, the Act created “a constitutionally-protected property interest in an individual’s employment as a police officer. Full-time municipal police officers enjoy a protected property interest in their position, together with the concomitant right to procedural due process when their employment is terminated.”

Sawl v. The Borough of West Kittanning, 2010 WL 1444868 (W.D. Pa. 2010).

This article appears in the July 2010 issue