On February 2, 2021, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over Illinois) reversed a lower court decision and held that the language of a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”)—which said discharge for “reasonable cause”—gave an employee a property interest in his continued employment and, thus, entitled him to due process rights.

In Cheli v. Taylorville Community School District, the school district terminated its Computer Systems Administrative Assistant after receiving information that he sexually harassed a female student. The employee was called into a meeting with his supervisor and the Superintendent, and he was terminated immediately. About a month later, the school board memorialized the termination in a resolution. The employee did not receive notice of the meeting or written notice of the charges or evidence. Instead, the employee received a mailed notice of the termination indicating he was discharged for incompetence. He was not provided with a post-termination hearing.

The employee, relying on language in the CBA, sued the school district for denial of due process. Specifically, the employee pointed to the following language of the CBA:

“An employee may be . . . discharged for reasonable cause. Grounds for discharge and/or suspension shall include, but not be limited to, drunkenness or drinking or carrying intoxicating beverages on the job, possession or use of any controlled and/or illegal drug, dishonesty, insubordination, incompetency, or negligence in the performance of duties.”

The Seventh Circuit agreed with the employee, noting that, although the language uses the word “may,” the district was actually required to have reasonable cause before discharging an employee. The court held, and the parties agreed, that “reasonable cause” is similar to “just cause” or “for cause.” Because the CBA language required, in essence, just cause before dismissal, the language gave the employee a property interest in his continued employment. As a result, he was entitled to receive due process—i.e., notice and a pre-termination hearing—prior to his dismissal.

For questions about what process is due for employees in potential dismissal cases, contact Ellen Rothenberg, Jeff Goelitz, Tony Loizzi, or any attorney in our Labor/Personnel practice group.

Source: Cheli v. Taylorville Cmty. Sch. Dist., 2021 WL 359433 (7th Cir. 2021)