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Monday, June 16, 2014

Summer Workers Beware: No Property Interest in Seasonal Employment

In Kvapil v. Chippewa County, Wisconsin, (7th Cir., June 9, 2014), Kvapil was employed by the County as a seasonal employee between June 5, 2006 until June 27, 2008.  As part of his job orientation, he was given the Employment Handbook, and signed a receipt stating: 
This employee handbook has been prepared for information purposes only.  None of the statements, policies, procedures, rules, or regulations contained in this handbook constitutes a guarantee of employment, a guarantee of any other rights or benefits, or a contact of employment, express or implied.  
The Handbook also contained a provision entitled “At Will Employment” that stated: 
All employees of this County are ‘at will’ employees.  Based upon this, employment can be terminated by either the County or the employee, at will, with or without cause, and with or without notice, at any time. 
While employed by the County, he also had an ongoing zoning dispute with the County, during which he made numerous threats to the County administrator.  After one of the threats became hostile, Kvapil was suspended for one day without pay.  The County cited its zero-tolerance policy regarding threats and violence as the reason for the suspension.  Additionally, he  was informed that any further infractions would subject him to more severe discipline, up to and including, termination.  A few days later, the County was notified that plaintiff had run a private citizen off the road while in this course of his work for the County.  After an investigation. The County terminated plaintiff’s employment as a result of the driving incident and his violations of numerous personnel ordinances and Highway Department work rules.

After Kvapil was fired, he filed a federal lawsuit claiming that he had a protected property interest in his seasonal employment with the County and that the suspension and termination violated his due process rights.  After losing at the district court level, plaintiff appealed to the 7th Circuit, which affirmed the ruling in favor of the County.

The 7th Circuit first determined that Kvapil was an at-will employee based on the Handbook and his signed receipt, and his lack of an employment contract with the County.  The court also found that he had no property interest in his seasonal employment.  The court looked to Chippewa County Ordinance Section 48.62, which governs the discipline of employees, finding that the Ordinance made clear that  violations of certain work rules could lead to disciplinary actions including suspension and discharge.  The 7th Circuit noted that the Ordinance contained no language to provide for continued employment, nor did it create a system for renewal of employment.  Instead, the Ordinance simply set out disciplinary procedures. 

Kvapil also argued that he should have been given a hearing so he could provide defend against the suspension and termination.  The 7th Circuit found that without any property interest in the employment, the County was not required to offer Kvapil a hearing.  Although he contended that the County did not follow its own procedures when terminating him, the Seventh Circuit noted that a local government’s failure to follow its own procedural rules does not violate due process.  Because Kvapil  had no property interest in the seasonal employment and that the County did not violate his due process rights, his termination was lawful.

Post Authored by Erin Baker, Ancel Glink


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