Carlita Maxwell, a social worker at a state adult protective services office in Brownsville, Texas, has a caseload of 40 clients. She is required to investigate and assess instances of suspected elder abuse within Cameron County, Texas. As part of her employment responsibilities, she must prepare case notes, maintain client records, perform intakes and assessments, and design treatment plans. A capable verbal communicator, she has good rapport with staff and clients alike. Carlita has worked at the office for three years and has “permanent” status as a state employee. Permanency in this context means a type of tenure offered after a probationary period within the state employment system. It gives employees such as Carlita a vested interest in continued employment.
Carlita unfortunately is not used to the copious record keeping required in state government. An internal audit has revealed Carlita’s failure to use appropriate administrative forms and to include comprehensive case notes in client files. Her supervisor, Abe Chen, has verbally admonished her for this conduct on two previous occasions, and on the basis of the internal audit has now issued a written reprimand that he has directed be included in Carlita’s permanent personnel file. Carlita, upset, has fired off a letter to Abe complaining that the letter is unfair, unfounded, and will surely “have an impact on my ability to get promoted in the future.” What is more, she complains, it has been issued without prior warning and without an opportunity for her to address whatever “minor paperwork issues” were the object of the reprimand. As Carlita puts it, “the long-term damage to me will be much worse than the trivial things you’re accusing me of.” Therefore, Carlita makes it known that she intends to file a grievance in response to the issuance of the reprimand.
Although department policies and procedures must guide Abe in his issuance of a written reprimand, the actions he takes should also be based on a review of due process concepts. If Abe surveys the due process principles discussed here, he should conclude that there are no substantive or even procedural due process issues implicated in this scenario. Carlita does have a property right connected with her job; however, this entitlement is not a fundamental right. Moreover, her right to continued employment is not directly threatened by the reprimand. The fact that Carlita’s future ability to get promoted or hired by another agency may be affected by the reprimand is simply too tenuous a connection to suggest any property deprivation. Furthermore, Carlita has no liberty based right to be free from discipline, including written reprimands. Consistent with the deference to agency administrators that is necessary for effective and efficient agency practice, Abe’s responsibilities to Carlita in connection with the issuance of the reprimand are minimal and certainly do not rise to the level of providing Carlita with advance notice and an opportunity for a hearing.
An additional note about the property rights of government employees and clients is appropriate here: As has already been demonstrated, a prospective “right” associated with one’s employment must attain some threshold level of significance before it will be considered to be a valid property interest subject to procedural due process protections. In the case of government employment, this usually means some deprivation of pay and benefits. Thus, when a public employee faces demotion, suspension without pay, or dismissal, the impending losses call for the provision of notice and an opportunity for a hearing. As already noted, this right does not extend to all employees, but rather only to personnel whose permanent or tenured status within a public agency allows them to assume a reasonable expectation of continuing employment.