John Turner was employed by the Arizona Department of Public Safety as a sworn, full-time highway patrol officer. In October 2008, Turner’s personal psychologist contacted the Department and advised that Turner be temporarily relieved from duty so that he could be treated for psychosis and paranoid schizophrenia, which was causing him to see demons in traffic violators.
The Department promptly relieved Turner from duty and placed him on paid administrative leave. A Department-contracted psychologist then determined that Turner was not fit for duty.
Some months later, the Department received a letter from Turner’s neurologist opining that Turner’s hallucinations had been caused by medications he was no longer taking. Nonetheless, the Department notified Turner that it had determined he was unable to properly perform his job responsibilities, removed him from administrative leave and gave him the option to use his accrued leave and request FMLA leave.
When a second fitness-for-duty evaluation concluded that Turner was still not fit for duty, the Department terminated him. Turner responded by suing the Department, claiming the termination violated his due process rights.
The Arizona Court of Appeals had good news and bad news for Turner. The good news was that it agreed with his theory that a disability termination required due process. The Court found that “as a permanent the Department employee, Turner had a constitutionally-protected property interest in his employment and could not be deprived of that interest without due process of law. A termination for a physical or mental disability is a termination, and contrary to the Department’s contentions, may be just as stigmatizing as a termination for disciplinary reasons. The employee’s right to due process is the same in either situation.”
The bad news for Turner was that the Court concluded that the Department had, in fact, provided him with due process. The Court held that due process required “only the barest of a pre-termination procedure, especially when an elaborate post-termination procedure is in place. We have held on more than one occasion that a pre-termination written exchange is sufficient when coupled with a full post-termination evidentiary hearing. The procedural requirements for the post-termination hearing may vary depending on the case, but generally require adequate written notice of the grounds for termination, disclosure of the evidence supporting termination, the opportunity to confront and cross-examine available adverse witnesses, the opportunity to be heard in person and present evidence, the opportunity to be represented by counsel, a fair and impartial decision-maker, and a written statement by the decision-maker as to the evidence relied upon and the reasons for the decision.
“Turner received adequate due process. Despite having not been provided copies or a detailed description of the fitness-for-duty evaluation reports before his termination, Turner was fully aware of the nature of the allegations against him and had multiple chances to present his side of the story. He effectively self-reported his disability through his psychologist and provided the Department with three separate reports from his psychiatrist over the course of the next year. His neurologist also submitted a letter. This was not a case in which an employee was terminated on a whim, or without a meaningful understanding of the grounds for termination. We conclude that the pre-termination due process requirements were satisfied on these specific facts.”
Turner v. Arizona Law Enforcement Merit System Council, 2012 WL 2803752 (Ariz. App. 2012).
Note: Arizona courts are notably conservative in their interpretation of due process rights. Many courts would require a pre-termination hearing in termination cases, even if the employee has a full post-termination remedy.
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.