May 19, 2019

Tenth Circuit: No Legitimate Claim of Entitlement to Pre-Termination Hearing Under State Law

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Ribeau, Jr. v. Katt on Monday, June 11, 2012.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. Petitioner was hired as a maintenance mechanic for a school district in 1984. “Over the years, he was promoted, assumed various job titles, and took on supervisory duties.” Respondents, his supervisors, decided to terminate Petitioner’s employment based on his alleged poor work performance, and twice told Petitioner that the Board of Education had approved his termination. “Due to the [Respondents]’ representations, [Petitioner] believed he could not file a grievance because the Board had already approved his termination. The Board, however, had not yet given its approval. . . . During [Petitioner]’s employment, he signed 23 separate employment agreements. Each agreement stated that [Petitioner] was an at-will employee.” Petitioner sued Respondents, alleging that they had deprived him of his property interest in continued employment without due process of law, in violation of his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court held that because Petitioner was an at-will employee, he did not have a protected property interest in his continued employment.

Petitioner “moved to alter or amend the district court’s judgment under Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. He requested that the court address an ‘alternative property interest . . . separate and distinct from his alleged property interest in his continued employment.’ This property interest was an implied ‘contract right to be heard by the Board of Education itself before the Board decided to terminate [Petitioner’s] employment.’ The district court denied [Petitioner]’s Rule 59(e) motion, and explained that Petitioner “did not have an implied right to be heard by the [B]oard” because the Handbook “does not provide for the right to be heard by the [B]oard before termination.”

The Tenth Circuit concluded that Petitioner had an express employment contract, and therefore Kansas courts would not recognize his implied-contract theory. “[A]ny entitlement [Petitioner] had to a pre-termination Board hearing must derive from his express employment contract. The language of that contract is unambiguous and does not provide for a pre-termination hearing before the Board. [Petitioner] therefore had no legitimate claim of entitlement to a pre-termination hearing under state law, and the district court was correct to dismiss his § 1983 claim.”

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