Texas Disciplinary Procedures Do Not Create Property Right

On May 6, 2014, Stephen Stem, a second-year officer at the Hearne, Texas Police Department, was dispatched to the home of Hearne resident Pearlie Golden. Roy Jones, Golden’s nephew, placed the emergency call. Jones said Golden, who had recently failed a driver’s license renewal test, threatened him with a gun after he had taken away her car keys. Stem recounted that when he arrived at the home, Golden pointed the gun at him and refused to put it down upon Stem’s direction. Stem said he then fired his weapon “in response to the immediate and deadly threat.” Golden was wounded and later died.

Four days later, the City fired Stem without providing him with a signed, written complaint from any city official prior to his dismissal. Stem sued, claiming the failure to provide him with a pre-disciplinary hearing violated his due process rights.

A federal court of appeals rejected Stem’s lawsuit. For due process to apply, the Court reasoned, Stem must possess a property right. Since the “default” condition of Texas law is that all employees are in “at-will” status, the Court concluded that the City was not required to follow due process in terminating Stem.

Stem argued that Section 614.023 of the Texas Government Code created a property right in his employment as a police officer. Section 614.023 provides for disciplinary procedures that must be followed with police officers, including the following:

“(a) A copy of a signed complaint…shall be given to the officer…within a reasonable time after the complaint is filed.

“(b) Disciplinary action may not be taken against the officer unless a copy of the signed complaint is given to the officer.

“(c) The officer may not be indefinitely suspended or terminated from employment based on the subject matter of the complaint unless: (1) the complaint is investigated; and (2) there is evidence to prove the allegation of misconduct.”

The Court found that Section 614.023 only created procedural protections, not a substantive property right to the job. As the Court analyzed it, “In our view, Section 614.023 assures that an officer against whom a complaint is filed understands the allegations against him and receives a meaningful investigation into the accuracy of those allegations. A right to an investigation, though, does not create a property right. A City’s merely conditioning an employee’s removal on compliance with certain specified procedures does not necessarily mean that an employee has a substantive property right in continued employment. We also know that the legislation was not aimed at abrogating the right to discharge at will. Finally, it is not even clear that the statute applies here, because the statutory meaning of a ‘complaint’ is unsettled.”

Stem v. Gomez, 2016 WL 520284 (5th Cir. 2016).