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Federal District Court Examines Protectable Property Interests Regarding Promotions

Benjamin R. Mitchell, et al. v. Samuel R. Cooper, et al.
Case No. 14-1421-LPS (United States District Court for the District of Delaware, January 9, 2017)

by Richard J. Medoff, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.ded.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/lps/2017/january/14-1421.pdf

Benjamin R. Mitchell, et al. v. Samuel R. Cooper, et al. involved a civil rights lawsuit filed by three (3) police officers, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the Defendants violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights to procedural due process by failing to consider them for promotions. The Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a), on the basis that the Plaintiffs had “no property interest in the promotional process.” The U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware (“the Court”) concluded that a “protected property interest” may have been created by a combination of City regulations and police department policies. Accordingly, the Court found that a genuine dispute of material fact existed, and thus, the Court denied the Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment.

By way of factual background, on November 20, 2014, Plaintiffs, Benjamin R. Mitchell, Scott A. O’Bier, and Victor T. Letonoff (collectively, “Plaintiffs”), filed a lawsuit against Defendants, the City of Rehoboth Beach (“City”), the City’s Mayor, and the City’s Chief of Police (collectively, “Defendants”), alleging violations of procedural due process, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiffs were officers in the Rehoboth Beach Police Department (the “Department”). Plaintiffs’ claims arose out of the Department’s creation of two (2) new “Lieutenant vacancies” in December 2013. Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants violated the Department’s employment and promotion policies by “failing to notify qualified applicants about the vacancies, and by failing to consider Plaintiffs for the positions.” Plaintiffs contended that Defendants “filled the positions with unqualified officers.”

Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants’ actions violated Departmental Directive 34 (“Directive 34”), the Department’s policy that “governed the promotion of police officers to the rank of Lieutenant,” which Plaintiffs claimed was incorporated by reference in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) between the City and the Department’s employees’ union. Plaintiffs further alleged that Defendants’ actions violated two (2) sections of the City’s Personnel Code: Section 46-6E, which “required the City to notify applicants of vacancies by advertising the vacancies when they arise;” and Section 46-6F, which “required the City to make promotion decisions based on merit.”

Defendants subsequently filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that Plaintiffs could “not show they have been deprived of a property interest in the promotional process.” In response, Plaintiffs contended that they had a “protected property interest due to: (a) Directive 34, (b) the City Personnel Code’s advertising provision; and/or (c) the City Personnel Code’s merit selection provision, in combination with other evidence.” For the reasons explained below, the Court concluded that “neither Directive 34, nor the advertising provision created a protected property interest,” but “summary judgment for Defendants was not warranted because a reasonable jury could find that the merit selection provision - in combination with other evidence - may give rise to a protected property interest.”

The Court began its analysis by noting that “in order to prevail on a claim for a violation of procedural due process, Plaintiffs need to show, by a preponderance of the evidence: (i) deprivation by state action of a constitutionally protected interest in life, liberty, or property (ii) without due process of law.” See Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113, 125 (1990); Kaminski v. Twp. of Toms River, 595 F.App'x 122, 125 (3d Cir. 2014). The Court explained that “State law creates the property rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment,” and that “under Delaware law, property interests may be created by state or federal statute, municipal ordinance, or by an express or implied contract.” See Kelly v. Borough of Sayreville, 107 F.3d 1073, 1077 (3d Cir. 1997); Bowers v. City of Wilmington, 723 F.Supp.2d 700, 706 (D. Del. 2010). The Court further explained that “in determining whether a given benefits regime creates a property interest protected by the Due Process Clause, the Court looks to the legal criteria governing the benefit, [and] where those criteria meaningfully channel official discretion by mandating a defined administrative outcome, a property interest will be found to exist.” See Kapps v. Wing, 404 F.3d 105, 113 (2d Cir. 2005); Olim v. Wakinekona, 461 U.S. 238, 248 (1983) (“A State creates a protected liberty interest by placing substantive limitations on official discretion”).

Defendants first argued that they were entitled to summary judgment because “Plaintiffs had no protected property interest in the Department’s promotion process as outlined in Directive 34.” Specifically, Defendants pointed to Article 5.6 of the CBA which “preserved the City’s discretion to change the Directives after notice of the change to each employee.” The Court agreed with Defendants that Directive 34 “did not confer a protected property interest,” finding that the City had discretion to change the Directives, and that the City’s discretion was “not constrained by any legal criteria [that] placed substantive limitations on official discretion.” See Eidson v. Pierce, 745 F.2d 453, 462 (7th Cir. 1983); Wash. Legal Clinic for the Homeless v. Barry, 107 F.3d 32, 36 (D.C. Cir. 1997).

Defendants further argued that Sections 46-6E and 46-6F of the City Personnel Code, like Directive 34, “created no property interest protected by the Due Process Clause.” Plaintiffs responded that “the City Charter, City Code, and the Department’s rules and regulations including Directive 34, taken together, require that qualified candidates receive appointment to an open Lieutenant position.” Regarding Section 46-6E, the Court found that it did not provide “criteria that would substantively limit [the City Manager’s] discretion to refrain from advertising a vacancy.” Therefore, the Court concluded that Section 46-6E did “not confer a protected property interest.” Regarding Section 46-6F, however, the Court noted that while the City “retained broad discretion in making promotions,” Section 46-6F did not “leave Defendants discretion to make these promotion decisions not based on merit and there was a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether that was what occurred here.”

Although the Court held that “Directive 34 in and of itself did not create a protected property interest,” the Court concluded that “a protected property interest may have been created by the combination of Directive 34, which was incorporated by reference in the CBA; Section 46-6F’s merit selection provision; along with the City Charter, City Code, the Department’s rules and regulations, and the Department’s conduct.” The Court further found that this “property interest may be found to have been violated by how the Lieutenant positions were filled in 2013.” Accordingly, the Court denied Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment.


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