Court Says Due Process Rights Do Not Apply
John T. Wolohan
While intentionally misleading your employees about complaints filed against them may not be the best way to keep them happy or even working for you, as the court ruled in Parker v. Albemarle County Public Schools, neither is it a federal offense.
In order for the school's conduct to violate Parker's due-process rights, Parker would have to first demonstrate that she was deprived of a protected liberty or property interest. In this case, although Parker was suspended for five days, she was still paid, so there was no lost income. Therefore, she was not deprived of her salary or property interest.
It could be argued that Parker's reputation was damaged when she was reprimanded, suspended and referred to the district's Employee Assistance Program (not to mention being barred from future sporting events). Unfortunately for Parker, however, the courts have ruled that a person's good name, reputation, honor or integrity alone, without some more tangible interests such as employment, are insufficient to invoke the protections of the due-process clause.
Even if Parker could have shown that she had a protected right in name or reputation, she would still have had to show that she was denied fair treatment or necessary procedural safeguards. For example, were Parker to have been suspended without pay, the school at a minimum would have to have given her written notice of the charges against her and, if she denied them, a hearing to present her side of the story. However, as this court ruled, a suspension in name only made these safeguards unnecessary.
A racial epithet led to some tense moments at a 2007 high school basketball game and, subsequently, to a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. The incident involved Fatima Parker, an African-American special education teacher with Albemarle County Public Schools, who used the "n-word" in reference to an African-American referee with whose calls she was loudly disagreeing. The following day, Parker alleged, she was told by school administrators that the referee and the NAACP filed complaints about her language, after which she was suspended for five days with pay, received a reprimand and suspension notice in her employee file, was referred to the district's Employee Assistance Program, was prohibited from attending any school sporting events for the rest of the school year and was required to write a letter of apology to the referee.
After all that, Parker discovered that neither the referee nor the NAACP had actually filed a complaint about the incident; she therefore filed a grievance over the disciplinary action, which was denied. She then filed suit, arguing that the use of the "n-word" between African-Americans is culturally acceptable and that her use of the word at the basketball game did not constitute obscene or abusive language. She contended, therefore, that the school board and administrators' conclusion that she used abusive and obscene language was tinged with racial bias. She also argued that the severity of the punishment was not proportional to the severity of the offense. However, the court dismissed the case, saying that neither Parker's procedural nor her substantive due-process rights had been violated.
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