May a school district employee be dismissed without prior opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing?

Cleveland Board of Education v. James Loudermill

Background.  James Loudermill was hired in 1979 by the Cleveland Board of Education (Board) to work as a security guard. This position constituted civil service employment. On his application, Loudermill wrote that he had never been convicted of a felony. Eleven months later, the Board discovered that Loudermill had been convicted of a felony in 1968.

In November 3, 1980, the Board’s Business Manager sent a letter to Loudermill. In this letter, Loudermill was dismissed from employment with the Board due to dishonesty on his job application. At this time, the only avenue open to Loudermill to contest his dismissal was to file an appeal with the Cleveland Civil Service Commission (Commission) after his dismissal. This is what he did.

The Commission’s referee heard Loudermill’s appeal in January, 1981; Loudermill stated he understood his charge to have been a misdemeanor, not a felony. In July, the referee recommended the Board reinstate his job. The full Commission however, decided against Loudermill and affirmed his dismissal in August, 1981, nine months after his dismissal.

Loudermill then asked the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Ohio (District Court) to review his dismissal. The former security guard alleged he had a property interest in maintaining his job with the Board. Loudermill argued that his dismissal was unconstitutional because the Ohio “statute did not provide employees an opportunity to respond to charges against them prior to removal.” 

He argued he possessed a property right to continued employment with the Board. The statute deprived employees like him of their property right without the due process of law required in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. 

The District Court dismissed Loudermill’s appeal. It claimed Ohio’s civil service statute adequately protected his property interest in his job despite not having a chance to explain his response to the Board’s accusation before being fired. 

As a result, Loudermill appealed once more. This appeal was heard by the Federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (Court of Appeals). The Court of Appeals disagreed in part with the District Court and agreed in part. The judges on the Court of Appeals determined Loudermill’s interest in responding to charges by presenting evidence prior to dismissal to outweigh any administrative burden placed upon the Board.  Loudermill won on this issue.

The Board, however, appealed to the United States Supreme Court.  The Board did not agree that it had to give Loudermill a chance to respond to charges prior to his dismissal.  

Issue on appeal to the United States Supreme Court: Accepting Loudermill had a property right to continued Board employment, did the Ohio statute provide an adequate procedure to protect that same right before his dismissal?

Opinion: Justice White wrote the Supreme Court’s majority decision. Justice White reasoned that due process requires a citizen whose life, liberty or property is being restricted by state government to receive notice and an “opportunity for a hearing appropriate for the nature of the case.” For example, Justice White cited that in the case of persons on public assistance, a full hearing with witnesses, is to be provided prior to benefits being reduced or stopped.

In Loudermill’s case, Justice White recognized the need to allow the public employees the right to explain their position prior to dismissal due to threat of removing one’s source of income and the difficulty in obtaining another job. 

Justice White concluded that public employees must receive “an oral or written notice of charges against him, an explanation of the employer’s evidence against him and an opportunity to present his side of the story.” He reasoned that if more evidence is needed, it could be presented at a full hearing following dismissal. Justice White wrote that to require a more formal procedure before dismissal would be unwise. It may impair the government employer’s “interest in quickly removing an unsatisfactory employee” according to Justice White.

Importance of decision: This precedent setting case changed the process required for all public employees facing dismissal. Although the meeting need only include notice, review of employer’s evidence and opportunity for the employee to explain their response, it is now required for all civil servants. It provides a required stage to bring employers and employees together prior to formal dismissal. 

Cleveland Board of Education v. James Loudermill, 470 US 532, 105 S.Ct 1487, 84 L.Ed2d 494 (1985)

James G. Wyman, Cleveland, Ohio, for Cleveland Board of Education.
Robert M. Fertel, Cleveland, Ohio, for Mr. Loudermill.

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