In 2012, the City of McPherson, Kansas terminated Police Officer Matthew Michaels. The charges against Michaels were: “Argumentative with superiors, insubordination, conduct unbecoming an officer, sleeping on duty, numerous other circumstances and situations where he was no longer viable to be a police officer.”
The City failed to grant Michaels a due process hearing before or after terminating him. The City also documented the reasons for Michaels’s termination in a written report to the Kansas Commission on Police Standards and Training (POST).
Michaels sued the City and a jury awarded him damages in the amount of $921,657.64, with the most substantial claim being that the City violated Michaels’ due process “liberty” rights. The City then filed a motion to overturn the verdict, arguing there was insufficient evidence to sustain Michaels’ claims.
The Court rejected the City’s motion and upheld the verdict. The Court started with Michaels’ “liberty” claim. Under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, employees have the “liberty” to pursue their chosen trade and profession. As the Court put it: “Where a person’s good name, reputation, honor, or integrity is at stake because of what the government is doing to him, a protectable liberty interest may be implicated that requires procedural due process in the form of a hearing to clear his name.”
In essence, “liberty” rights are a constitutional protection against an employer publicizing false allegations against an employee contemporaneous with terminating the employee. It is through the process of a name-clearing hearing – usually held after the termination decision – that an employee can present evidence that can convince the employer not to wrongly impugn the employee’s reputation.
The Court found that the City’s report of Michaels’ termination to POST was a sufficient basis for the liberty claim. The Court referred to the charges listed in the report as vague and unsupported by evidence. The Court held that “the most damaging of the allegations were that Michaels engaged in ‘conduct unbecoming an officer’ and ‘numerous other circumstances where he was no longer viable to be a police officer,’ including wearing cargo pants instead of uniform pants at a function.” These allegations, the Court found, were “sufficiently derogatory to call into question his good name and reputation and implied that Michaels engaged in some sort of immoral, dishonest or unseemly behavior.” The Court ruled that the jury reasonably concluded that the City’s allegations were both false and stigmatizing.
The Court also pointed to the City’s allegation that Michaels had slept on duty, and found the allegation additional support for Michaels’ liberty claim. The Court held that the City knew long before Michaels was fired that Michaels had been diagnosed with and treated for obstructive sleep apnea, and that he had suffered from no recurrence or symptoms after being treated. As such, the Court held, the jury reasonably concluded that the sleeping-on-duty allegation was pretextual and false.
Michaels v. City of McPherson, Kansas, 2014 WL 686348 (D. Kan. 2014).