Bishop v. Wood


Bishop v. Wood (1976) dealt with an employment dispute between a former police officer and the city for which he worked. Bishop provides two key legal propositions for public employees generally, including educators in public schools who are subject to dismissal from their jobs. First, Bishop makes it clear that interpretations of state law determine whether constitutionally protected property interests in public employment exist, such as tenure or other interests involving continued employment. Second, Bishop stands for the notion that if officials do not reveal the reasons for dismissing public employees, then they will not have violated the liberty interests of the former employees, even if the reasons were false.

Facts of the Case


The dispute arose when Carl Bishop was dismissed from his job as a police officer in Marion, North Carolina. Behind closed doors, the city manager informed Bishop of the reasons for his dismissal but did not afford him a hearing with an opportunity to redress the asserted claims leading to his dismissal. Bishop alleged that the reasons for his dismissal were untrue and that the false statements harmed his reputation. Consequently, Bishop unsuccessfully sued the city under the Fourteenth Amendment, claiming that he was deprived of property and liberty interests. Afederal trial court and the Fourth Circuit rejected his charges.

The Court’s Ruling


In reviewing the first of the two issues before it, the U.S. Supreme Court found it necessary to consider whether Bishop could actually have expected continued employment as a constitutional property right. The Court explained that because the legal right of continued governmental employment generally represents a constitutionally protected property interest, challenges to a public employee’s property interest would require due process, such as a hearing or an opportunity for appeal.
In this case, with nearly three years of employment, Bishop contended that his employment status, which was that of a permanent employee, warranted a reasonable expectation of continued employment. As support for his argument, the plaintiff cited an employment provision on dismissal processes within the applicable city ordinance. The provision stated that dismissals of permanent employees, namely city employees who satisfactorily complete their sixmonth probationary periods, required written notice and reasons for their being discharged.
Accordingly, based on two reasons, Bishop claimed that he had a property interest. First, he interpreted the phrase “permanent employee” in the ordinance to implicitly attach an expectation of his continued employment or a constitutionally based property interest. Additionally, because termination proceedings could only have proceeded if supported by just cause such as a qualifying reason for dismissal, absent one of the enumerated reasons provided in the ordinance, Bishop maintained that his being discharged from public employment was improper.
In upholding Bishop’s dismissal in a 5-to-4 vote, the Supreme Court decided that interpretations of provisions over governmental employment should be left to the state. To this end, even though the Court noted that the ordinance may have been interpreted either with or without an employee’s expectation of continued employment, it believed that the determination of whether Bishop could have viewed his status as a permanent employee with an expectation of continued employment that attaches a constitutional property interest was left to North Carolina law. Insofar as the Court did not think that any direct authority existed on how to interpret state law, it relied on the trial and appellate courts’ interpretations, both of which agreed that the ordinance did not afford state public employees an expectation of continued employment. Instead, the Court was convinced that because city employees worked at the will and pleasure of the city, no constitutional property interest was involved.
The Court next turned to the second issue in noting that the basis for the deprivation of liberty rights rests on some harm to one’s good name, reputation, honor, or integrity. When the reasons for termination are not made public, the Court was of the opinion that a claim for the deprivation of liberty rights cannot be sustained, even if the statements were false. In Bishop, the Court pointed out that because the reasons for the plaintiff’s dismissal were given in private, his claim had to fail.
At the same time, Bishop argued that officials disclosed false reasons, which caused harm to his reputation, during the discovery phase. In rejecting this claim, the Court posited that the dismissal discussions that were uncovered during the evidentiary discovery process or related to the filing of a case cannot serve as evidence of public disclosure, because the public disclosure would not have occurred otherwise. The Court concluded that even if the reasons for the plaintiff’s dismissal were false, because they were made in private, he was not deprived of any liberty interests.
Jeffrey C. Sun

See also Board of Regents v. Roth; Fourteenth Amendment; Perry v. Sindermann
Further Readings
  • Rabin, R. L. (1976). Job security and due process: Monitoring administrative discretion through a reasons requirement. University of Chicago Law Review, 44(1), 60–93.
Legal Citations
  • Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341 (1976).
  • Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564 (1972).
  • Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593 (1972).