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College president abruptly fired without hearing, accused of misconduct may pursue due process claims

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

A community college president whose contract provided he could only be terminated for cause, and who was abruptly fired and publicly accused of misconduct without any type of hearing, could pursue his Section 1983 claims for federal due process violations. Though the board of trustees argued that he was not discharged since extensions to his contract were invalid (and therefore it had simply chosen not to renew his contract), a contract with a community college president could extend past the next election under Illinois law. In this interlocutory appeal affirming denial of the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the Seventh Circuit also found that the board members were not entitled to qualified immunity (Breuder v. Board of Trustees, April 17, 2018, Easterbrook, F.).

Abrupt termination. In 2008, the plaintiff was hired to serve as president for a community college in Illinois operated by the district’s board of trustees. His original contract expired in June 2012, but had been extended twice to run through 2019. In October 2015, however, he was fired without notice or a hearing by the newly elected board members, who had campaigned on a pledge to remove him. The board also adopted resolutions stating that he had committed misconduct and refused to comply with his contract’s clauses covering severance pay and retirement benefits.

He filed this lawsuit asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, as well as Illinois contract and defamation law, asserting that his termination without a hearing, but with defamatory statements, deprived him of his federal due process rights. The board moved to dismiss, contending among other things that he never had a valid employment contract. Individual members of the board also moved to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds. The district court denied both motions.

Did he have a valid contract? In arguing that the extension to his contract wasn’t valid, the board relied on the general rule in Illinois that a governmental body whose members serve limited terms may not enter into contracts that extend beyond those terms, unless the state’s legislature establishes a different rule, which was first announced by the Illinois Supreme Court in Millikin v. Edgar County. Though the plaintiff’s original contract ran through June 2012, the board claimed that his tenure could not run past May 2009, when the terms of some of its members expired, and that thus the contract’s two extensions running through 2019 were also invalid since other members’ terms had expired in the interim.

Extensions allowed for certain college personnel. However, in Hostrop v. Board of Junior College District No. 515, the Seventh Circuit held that legislation superseded the Millikin rule for community colleges. That case similarly arose from a contract giving a college president tenure beyond the date of the board’s next election, and the decision relied on a state law permitting the board of a community-college district to “establish tenure policies for the employment of teachers and administrative personnel.” Thus, it established the principle that a contract with a college president may extend past the next election.

Indeed, a college in Illinois would have considerable difficulty hiring a quality president if it could offer only brief employment, while colleges elsewhere were offering several-year contracts common for the top office. Here, the board members served staggered six-year terms, with two or three posts coming up for election every two years. If Millikin were to apply, no appointment could exceed two years, with some facing shorter limits due to resignations or other scenarios. Accordingly, because the board failed to persuade the Seventh Circuit that the college president never had a valid contract, the district court’s decision in that regard was affirmed.

No qualified immunity. The Seventh Circuit also rejected the board members’ contention that they were entitled to qualified immunity on the Section 1983 claims since, because the validity of the plaintiff’s contract was uncertain, they couldn’t have violated any clearly established rule. First, when firing him without giving him an opportunity for a hearing, the board issued a statement declaring that he had committed misconduct. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that even a person who has no property interest in a public job has a constitutional entitlement to a hearing before being defamed as part of a discharge, or at a minimum to a name-clearing hearing after the discharge. The board did not offer any such opportunity to the plaintiff.

Hearing would have addressed contract’s validity. Second, a hearing is required whenever the officeholder has a “legitimate claim of entitlement” to keep the job. Since the plaintiff had a written contract for a term of years, he had a legitimate claim of entitlement to have the board honor its promise. That his claim may have ultimately failed did not eliminate its existence and a hearing would have allowed him to articulate his position and insist that the contract be enforced. Both the duration of his tenure and the existence of misconduct (essential to discharge him early, if the contract was valid) were debatable subjects. The board members who refused even to listen to him violated his clearly established rights.

The board members also argued that the statements issued in connection with his discharge weren’t defamatory because they were opinions and/or that they had a First Amendment defense because the president was a public figure. However, these arguments did not undermine the clarity of the legal rules about when people are entitled to hearings. They could provide defenses to state-law claims, or highlight issues that could have been pursued at a hearing, but did not weaken the strength of his constitutional right to a hearing.