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Firing of town official not due process violation

A U.S. District Court judge has ruled that a Rhode Island town did not violate the due process rights of its finance director by terminating him from his position in 2010.

The plaintiff employee argued that the town’s post-termination process was constitutionally infirm because the town of Coventry refused to subpoena additional witnesses on his behalf.

“But [the plaintiff] cites to no authority suggesting that the Town’s denial violated [his] due process rights and this Court has found none, “ Chief Judge William E. Smith wrote. “Particularly when considered with his pre-termination process, [the plaintiff] received all the post-termination process the Constitution requires.”

The 19-page decision is West v. Hoover, et al.

Coventry attorneys Timothy A. Williamson and Tara L. Fontaine represented the plaintiff. The town was defended by Scituate attorneys Dianne L. Izzo and Nicholas Gorham.

Financial investigation

On July 7, 2010, the town suspended plaintiff Warren West with pay while it investigated an issue between the town and the Coventry School Department concerning school funding. The school superintendent believed that the town impermissibly cut funding by $225,000 and requested that the Rhode Island Department of Education — or RIDE — investigate.

After RIDE commenced an investigation into the town’s maintenance of effort funding, the Town Council hired Ernest Almonte, a private auditor, to explore the plaintiff’s involvement in the matter.

On Aug. 12, 2010, Almonte completed his investigation and filed a report concluding that the plaintiff “did not provide proper oversight and due diligence in the accounting treatment” of $225,000 in state housing aid that was initially reserved for school department capital projects. The report also concluded that the plaintiff “should have recognized the accounting problem” and “revealed it … to the State, and worked with the special legal counsel to clarify the situation.”

On Aug. 13, 2010, defendant Thomas Hoover, Coventry’s town manager, forwarded to the plaintiff a copy of the Almonte report, along with a letter offering the plaintiff an informal hearing. The hearing took place on Aug. 20, 2010, at the law office of the town’s solicitor, Patrick Rogers. Though the plaintiff could not cross-examine individuals at the hearing, he did have the opportunity to give the town a line-by-line opposition to the Almonte report at the hearing.

Hoover terminated the plaintiff on Aug. 20, 2010. Pursuant to Section 51-20(D) of the Coventry Code of Ordinances, the plaintiff had two weeks to request a hearing before the town’s Personnel Board. The plaintiff exercised his right to a hearing, which took place over five days between Sept. 23, 2010, and March 24, 2011.

On July 28, 2011, the board dismissed the plaintiff’s appeal, having determined that there was not clear and convincing evidence that the town had acted with religious, racial or political prejudice in terminating his employment.

The plaintiff brought suit claiming that the town violated his 14th Amendment due process rights when it fired him.

‘Charade’ claim

“The essential requirements of procedural due process ‘are notice and an opportunity to respond,’” Smith said. “Indeed, it is well settled that due process does not afford employees the same level of process as in courts of law; instead, it merely requires that the Town give West ‘a meaningful opportunity to respond to the Town’s explanation for his termination.’”

The judge found the town afforded such an opportunity to the plaintiff.

“He confronted each of the witnesses the Town presented against him, called to his defense individuals who would willingly testify for him, and presented documentary evidence to the Board in support of his case,” Smith said.

The plaintiff asserted that his hearings were a “charade” and, thus, did not actually offer him a meaningful opportunity to be heard.

“Specifically, West argues that the outcomes of both hearings were predetermined, and that the decisionmakers were so biased that West had no chance to challenge the Town’s decision,” the judge noted.

But Smith found that the plaintiff presented no evidence that the decisionmakers decided to replace the plaintiff prior to his hearings. The plaintiff pointed to invoices from the town’s outside law firm showing that the attorneys advised the town regarding the decision to terminate him.

“[R]ead in the light most favorable to West, the billing records suggest that the attorneys discussed among themselves the process and strategy for terminating West well before the Town notified West that it was considering terminating his employment,” Smith wrote. “But … these invoices say nothing of the state of Hoover’s decision regarding West at his pre-termination hearing nor do they suggest that the Personnel Board had decided West’s fate prior to West’s post-termination hearing.”

To support his claim of bias, the plaintiff noted that attorney Patrick Rogers participated in the investigation of the plaintiff as well as the termination hearings.

“West has presented no evidence that Rogers was a decisionmaker at either of his hearings,” the judge stated. “Further, even if Rogers was a decisionmaker, due process does not prohibit an investigator from also presiding over the due process hearing.”

The plaintiff further argued that his hearings were biased by political prejudice, asserting that members of the Republican Party took control of the Town Council in November 2008 and that he was a holdover employee from Democratic administrations.

But West presented no evidence to connect the political makeup of the council to his termination, Smith found.

“To be sure, West believes that the Almonte Report got it wrong,” he said. “But even if West is correct and the Town erred, the error does not alone violate West’s due process rights.”

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