In Nelson v. Town of St. Johnsbury, LaMotte, Oddy, Ruggles, Rust, Timson, 2015 VT 5 (January 16, 2015), the Vermont Supreme Court allowed a Town Manager’s claims for wrongful termination and violation of due process under a federal statute and the Vermont state constitution to go forward on the grounds that the Town was required to provide him with procedural due process before firing him.
Issue: Plaintiff appeals from the grant of summary judgment on his claims of wrongful termination, violation of procedural due process under 42 USC 1983, violation of due process under the Vermont constitution, and promissory estoppel.
Holding: Reverse and remand on dismissal of wrongful termination, 1983, and state constitutional claims. Affirm dismissal of promissory estoppel claim and grant of summary judgment on the qualified immunity defense.
More Detail: This appeal centered around whether, under 24 VSA 1233, in the absence of a contract, a town manager may be terminated for any reason, or only for cause. The Court delved into a significant legislative intent and historical analysis and ultimately determined that the statute mandates that a town manager may only be terminated for cause; therefore, the Court reversed the dismissal of the wrongful termination claim and remanded for a determination of whether cause existed for the termination. Given that the termination had to be for cause, the Court found that Plaintiff had a property right in his employment; therefore the Court reversed the dismissal of the 1983 claim and remanded for a determination of whether Plaintiff received procedural due process in the termination, and whether there had been any waiver. The Court also reversed the dismissal of the state constitutional claims and remanded for a determination of whether Plaintiff received adequate notice. The Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the issue of promissory estoppel, finding that any communications between Plaintiff and the Town’s attorney regarding the “for cause” terminations had been in the manner of a legal opinion, not a binding promise. Finally, the Court found that the Town selectboard was entitled to qualified immunity because it did not violate a clearly established right when it removed Plaintiff without cause.
Dissent: CJ Reiber disagreed with the majority’s analysis of the legislative intent of 24 VSA 1233, noting that other states with similar statutes have analyzed the statute as allowing “at-will” removal, but requiring the selectboard to articulate the cause for the removal.