E-Alert Case Updates
Delaware Federal Court Examines the Doctrine of Qualified Immunity and the Law of Constructive Discharge
Nathan Benson v. Chief Edwin Cooke, individually and in his capacity as a Town of Blades Police Officer, and Town of Blades, Delaware
In Nathan Benson v. Chief Edwin Cooke, individually and in his capacity as a Town of Blades Police Officer, and Town of Blades, Delaware, after being pressured to resign by his Police Chief, a former police officer filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware against the Police Chief, alleging a violation of his procedural due process rights. The Police Chief subsequently filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that the law of constructive discharge was not sufficiently clear to overcome qualified immunity in this case. The Court concluded that the former police officer alleged sufficient facts to support the finding of a violation of his due process rights, and that the law in this area was sufficiently clear such that a state official could not have made a reasonable mistake about whether there was a constitutional violation. Thus, the Court denied the Police Chief’s Motion to Dismiss.
By way of factual background, Plaintiff Nathan Benson (“Plaintiff” or “Benson”) was a police officer for the Town of Blades, Delaware (the “Town”) from approximately July 2007 through February 8, 2014. In November 2013, Benson and another Town police officer informed the Town’s Mayor that Defendant Edwin Cooke (“Cooke”), the Town’s Police Chief, was stealing grant money by falsifying overtime records in order to receive payment for work he had not completed. Cooke subsequently learned about Benson’s complaint.
Soon after, Benson was involved in an altercation while off-duty at a restaurant in Seaford, Delaware. The Seaford Police arrested and charged Benson with disorderly conduct and offensive touching, however, the charges were later dropped. Nevertheless, on December 24, 2013, Cooke suspended Benson indefinitely with pay. In addition, Cooke launched an internal investigation to determine whether Benson had acted with conduct unbecoming of an officer. Cooke commissioned the Police Department of the Town of Ocean View, Delaware to conduct the investigation. Ocean View’s Police Chief was a personal friend of Cooke.
On January 20, 2014, Cooke called Benson and told him that the Seaford Police Chief did not feel comfortable having him process prisoners at the Seaford Police Department and that the Town Council opposed his return to the Town’s police department. Cooke advised Benson that he should resign. Cooke called Benson twice to follow up about whether he was going to resign, telling him that he needed a decision immediately. Relying on Cooke’s assertions that the Town Council would fire him, Benson resigned on February 8, 2014.
On September 22, 2015, Benson filed a complaint against Cooke and the Town (collectively, the “Defendants”). On November 25, 2015, Benson filed an amended complaint alleging: (I) a violation of his procedural due process rights against Cooke; (II) a violation of the Delaware Whistleblowers’ Protection Act against the Town; and (III) fraud against the Town. On December 11, 2015, Cooke filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that any complaints against him were official capacity claims barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity. Cooke did not challenge that Benson had alleged a constitutional violation. He acknowledged that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required a state actor to provide an individual with an opportunity for notice and a hearing before he loses employment in which he possesses a property interest. Rather, Cooke argued that the law of constructive discharge was not sufficiently clear to overcome qualified immunity in this case. Benson responded that the law was clearly established and that the constitutional analysis should focus on whether his waiver of the right to procedural due process was knowing or voluntary.
The Court began its analysis by explaining that “qualified immunity shields government officials from civil damages liability unless the official personally violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct,” and that “officials may make reasonable mistakes of law, fact, or both.” See Taylor v. Barkes, 135 S.Ct. 2042, 2044 (2015); Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 567 (2004). The Court further explained that the appropriate analysis to determine whether qualified immunity applied was “whether the plaintiff had established facts that ‘make out a violation of a constitutional right’ and whether that right was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the alleged misconduct.” See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001).
The Court noted that, “to establish a claim under § 1983 for deprivation of procedural due process, a plaintiff must prove that he was deprived of a property interest under color of state law and the procedures available to him did not provide him with due process.” See Dykes v. Southeastern Pa. Transp. Auth., 68 F.3d 1564, 1570 (3d Cir. 1995). The Court explained that, “if a protected property interest has been or will be deprived, procedural due process requires that the governmental unit provide the individual with notice and a reasonable opportunity to be heard.” See Rusnak v. Williams, 44 Fed.App'x 555, 558 (3d Cir. 2002). The Court further explained that, as a general rule, “voluntary separation cannot serve as a basis for a due process claim and resignation is presumed to be voluntary.” Leheny v. City of Pittsburgh, 183 F.3d 220, 227-28 (3d Cir. 1998). The Court noted that “this presumption remains intact until the employee presents evidence to establish that the resignation or retirement was involuntarily procured,” and that resignation was deemed involuntary in two (2) circumstances: “(1) the employer forces the resignation or retirement by coercion or duress, or (2) the employer obtains the resignation or retirement by deceiving or misrepresenting a material fact to the employee.” See Leheny, 183 F.3d at 228; Rusnak, 44 Fed.App'x at 558.
Turning to the facts of the case, the Court noted that Benson alleged a violation of his due process rights because he claimed that his resignation was involuntarily procured. Specifically, he alleged that Cooke misrepresented that the Town Council was prepared to fire him in order to obtain his resignation. Thus, the Court found that Benson alleged sufficient facts to support the finding of a violation of his constitutional rights. Moreover, the Court found that “the law in this area was sufficiently clear to provide Cooke with notice.” Taking the facts alleged as true, the Court concluded that “a government official could not have made a reasonable mistake about whether there was a constitutional violation.” See Williams v. Bitner, 455 F.3d 186, 194 (3d Cir. 2006) (holding that a government official was on notice for purposes of qualified immunity where there is law supporting the principles underlying the right at issue); Brown v. Muhlenberg Twp., 269 F.3d 205, 211-12 (3d Cir. 2001) (“if the unlawfulness of the defendant's conduct would have been apparent to a reasonable official based on the current state of the law, it is not necessary that there be binding precedent from this circuit so advising.”). Accordingly, the Court held that Cooke was not shielded from liability for civil damages by the doctrine of qualified immunity. Thus, the Court denied Cooke’s Motion to Dismiss.
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