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Do Employees Have a Property Interest in a Government Gig?

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The City of Momence, Illinois fired Steven Cromwell, a former police lieutenant, after an incident of alleged alcohol-related misconduct. He sued, arguing that his termination was procedurally inadequate under the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause, because that’s what all the kids are doing these days.

Momence city regulations provide that probationary employees may be terminated at any time for any reason, but omit similar language when it comes to nonprobationary employees. Cromwell — a nonprobationary employee — believes that omission means that he has a contractual right to continued employment absent cause for termination.

A district court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.

Both courts found that the regulations did not create a contractual right to continued employment absent cause because Cromwell lacked a property interest in his job and the Due Process Clause wasn't implicated.

The right to due process would only be implicated in Cromwell's case if he was deprived of a constitutionally-protected property interest. Property interests are created by state law, so the courts had to consider Cromwell's claim under Illinois law.

The appellate court noted:

In Illinois, "a person has a property interest in his job only where he has a legitimate expectation of continued employment based on a legitimate claim of entitlement" ... Because employment relationships in Illinois are presumed to be at will, establishing an expectation of continued employment requires a clear statement made in some "substantive state-law predicate."

Though Cromwell based his claim to a protected property interest on the Momence Police Department Rules and Regulations, the courts found that nothing in the Momence regulations created a clear promise of continued employment.

Specific language that Illinois courts have found to impart that "clear promise" in past cases include an indication that an employee would achieve "permanent employment status" and "tenure," and a guarantee that employees "shall not be suspended, discharged or otherwise disciplined without just cause."

That specific language requirement is pretty, well, specific.

The Seventh Circuit says "something stronger than inference from silence is required to overcome Illinois's common-law presumption of at-will employment." Before you file a employment claim asserting due process violations, you need to find specific language to support your case.

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