In 2008, when the City of Charlotte, North Carolina Metropolitan Police Department selected Tammy Hatley and 38 other sergeants for the position “Response Area Commander,” (RAC) it held a ceremony which it called a “promotion ceremony.” At the ceremony, all 39 sergeants were presented by the Department with insignia indicating that they had been promoted to the rank of staff sergeant, which is another stripe for a non-commissioned officer. In preparation for the ceremony, the Department provided the candidates with information and instructions concerning the formal promotion ceremony. The Department also provided Hatley with a take home car, additional authority over and responsibility for the sergeants working in her response area, and a substantial pay increase of seven percent.

Two years later, the Department demoted Hatley to sergeant, and replaced her with another sergeant. Hatley sued, contending she had a property right in the RAC position, and that the Department did not follow procedural due process in demoting her.

The Department argued that Hatley was not really “promoted” since her rank of sergeant was unchanged when she became a RAC. Rather, the Department inveighed, Hatley was merely given a special assignment.

A federal court found in Hatley’s favor. The Court concluded that “it appears that the Department believed that these 39 promotions were not promotions because it never ran them through the Civil Service Board and that the Department never took such step because it considered them to be special assignments. While arguing that special assignments were routine at all levels of the Department, the Department conceded at the hearing that it had never before awarded an additional stripe to a person placed on a special assignment. Likewise, there was no evidence that the Department ever put on a promotion ceremony for other special assignments or substantially increased pay for special assignments. There was evidence that it provided take home cars for some special assignments.

“While the Court has given the testimony of the Department’s chief administrator great deference concerning the employment customs and practices of the Department under the City Charter, the Court has afforded no weight to statements concerning whether what occurred here was a promotion, which, absent any disputed facts as to what occurred, is a legal conclusion. In determining whether a public employee has a property interest in employment turns not on the subjective belief of the employer, but on whether existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law create a legitimate claim of entitlement.

“The Court can find no support in the language of the City Charter that would support the Department’s argument that the Chief cannot make a promotion without approval of the Civil Service Board. Instead, the City Charter provides that the Chief of Police may promote officers ‘subject to majority approval of the civil service board,’ and then provides that ‘any demotions shall be made only after written charges are preferred and a hearing held before the Civil Service Board.’ Clearly, the language ‘subject to’ can reasonably be read to permit the Chief to promote and then seek CSB approval.

“The undisputed evidence before the Court clearly shows that Hatley was promoted in 2008 to the rank of staff sergeant. The City Charter clearly delegates authority to the Chief of Police to ‘make all promotions’ which are then ‘subject to’ approval by the Civil Service Board. When the language of the City Charter is combined with the undisputed actions of the Department in representing to Hatley and the public that she had been promoted, Hatley had legitimate claim of entitlement to continued employment as a staff sergeant.”

Because the Department did not grant Hatley a Civil Service Board hearing before demoting her, the Court found that Hatley’s demotion violated her rights to procedural due process. The Court set the case for a jury trial on the amount of damages Hatley should be awarded.

Hatley v. City of Charlotte, 826 F. Supp. 2d 890 (D. N.C. 2012).

The above article has appeared in a previous issue of Public Safety Labor News and has been reprinted courtesy of Labor Relations Information System. These articles are for informational purposes only.