City of Mobile v. Fred Wayne Lawley, Jr.: In a pre-termination hearing, a government employee’s procedural due process rights are satisfied when the employing agency adheres to its own rules, and the employee is provided oral or written notice of the charges against him, an explanation of the employer’s evidence, and an opportunity for the employee to present his side of the story.
Just the Facts
In February 2015, Fred Wayne Lawley, Jr. was a police officer for the City of Mobile, Alabama, whose employment was terminated after he was charged with stealing property valued at $2,050 while responding to a reported burglary. During the investigation of the matter by the Mobile Police Department, Lawley was only permitted to attend the portion of the disciplinary hearing during which he testified. He did not hear the testimony of the other witnesses, which was in contravention of the procedural rules established by the Mobile County Personnel Board. Lawley’s attorney argued the preclusion violated Lawley’s due process rights.
The Personnel Board dismissed the matter in March 2016, but the city appealed to the Circuit Court of Mobile County. The circuit court found the Personnel Board (and by extension, on appeal, the circuit court) did not have authority to decide constitutional questions, such as those raised by Lawley’s attorneys. Constitutional questions are beyond the board’s administrative capacity. The circuit court found that the Personnel Board did have the discretion to interpret the board’s own rules, including those addressing the requirement that city employees being subjected to disciplinary proceedings be permitted to hear witnesses called to testify against them. And as such the board was within its authority to dismiss the action against Lawley.
As a result, the circuit court dismissed the city’s appeal. The city then appealed to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals. City of Mobile v. Fred Wayne Lawley, Jr. [Ms. 2160003 Mar.17, 2017], — So.3d — (Ala.Civ.App. 2017).
An Issue for Appeal
On appeal the city first contends that the board did not have jurisdiction to consider the constitutional question of whether Lawley’s due process right was violated. Lawley concedes that to be an accurate statement of the law, but contends that the board dismissed his appeal on other grounds. In fact the board did not state any reason for its decision and made no factual findings. It determined only that Lawley’s termination was void and ordered Lawley to be reinstated with back pay.
The issue then before the appellate court was whether the board had correctly determined the appeal was void based on its own rules. The law in Alabama is that a court should give deference to an agency’s interpretation of its rules so long as the agency’s interpretation is reasonable and supported by law. Additionally, administrative rules are to be given the same plain-meaning interpretation as is used when construing other statutes.
A Government Employee’s Due Process Rights
The United States Supreme Court has addressed the issue of what rights atenured government employee must be afforded prior to termination, which includes a pre-termination hearing that need not be elaborate nor be a full evidentiary hearing. The purpose of the pre-termination hearing is to be an “initial check against mistaken decisions–essentially, a determination of whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that the charges against the employee are true and support the proposed action.” Federal due process requirements are satisfied when, in a pre-termination hearing, the employee is provided oral or written notice of the charges against him, an explanation of the employer’s evidence, and an opportunity for the employee to present his side of the story. To require more prior to termination would intrude to an unwarranted extent on the government’s interest in quickly removing an unsatisfactory employee.
Applying these principles, as well as those adopted by the Supreme Court of Alabama in City of Orange Beach v. Duggan, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals found that Lawley is entitled to a de novo hearing before the board of the trial board’s decision to terminate his employment, and Lawley’s procedural due-process concerns would be adequately addressed by a hearing before the board. The appellate court further found no requirement in the applicable agency rule allowing an employee to be present at a pre-disciplinary hearing while other witnesses are questioned. In so requiring, the board went beyond interpreting the rule and added a requirement that did not exist in the language of the rule. The procedures adhered to by the police department in its pre-disciplinary hearing satisfied the due process requirements afforded to Lawley in the applicable rules and pursuant to federal and state law, as described in Loudermill and Duggan.
The appellate court found that the circuit court erred in affirming the board’s order dismissing Lawley’s appeal. It reversed and remanded the case accordingly.
 See Wright v. City of Mobile, 170 So.3d 656 (Ala.Civ.App. 2014).
 See Ex parte State Dep’t of Revenue, 683 So.2d 980, 983 (Ala. 1996); see also Boswell v. Abex Corp., 317 So.2d 317, 318 (Ala. 1975).
 See Brookwood Health Servs., Inc. v. State Health Planning & Dev. Agency, 202 So.3d 345, 351 (Ala.Civ.App. 2016); see also Alabama Medicaid Agency v. Beverly Enters., 521 So.2d 1329, 1332 (Ala.Civ.App. 1987).
 See Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985); see also City of Orange Beach v. Duggan, 788 So.2d 146, 152 (Ala. 2000).
 Id. at 545-46.
 Id. at 546.
Photo by West Midlands Police.