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Velger v. Cawley

September 9, 1975


Appeal from an order and judgment entered in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Henry F. Werker, Judge, which dismissed the complaint brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and granted judgment for the defendants on all issues.

Clark, Associate Justice,*fn* Hays and Mansfield, Circuit Judges.

Author: Clark

CLARK, Associate Justice

In this appeal of his case brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983,*fn1 Elliott H. Velger, appellant, seeks reversal of a judgment refusing: 1) his reinstatement as a probationary patrolman with the New York City Police Department; and 2) the recovery of damages for injury to his reputation because of his summary dismissal. On February 16, 1973, he was dismissed without cause, without a hearing, and without being apprised of the grounds therefor.*fn2 Velger had enlisted in the force as Patrolman, Police Trainee, on January 30, 1970. He served in that position until August 15, 1972, shortly after his twenty-first birthday, when he was elevated to the position of probationary Patrolman. He remained in this position until his abrupt dismissal. He had served three years and had only five more months to serve on his probationary period.

While prosecuting his suit, Velger sought other employment. On September 10, 1973, he was provisionally employed by the Penn Central Railroad as a patrolman-watchman. He had placed fourth out of twenty applicants in competitive testing for the position. But after some sixty days with the Penn Central, he was discharged solely because of the results of an inspection of his personnel record in the New York City Police Department. He had granted Penn Central authorization to see his records on file at the Department. The trial judge found that Penn Central "gleaned" from Velger's personnel file that he "had been dismissed because while still a trainee he had put a revolver to his head in an apparent suicide attempt."*fn3

Velger's subsequent attempts to secure work included taking over one hundred civil service examinations, of which he passed ninety-seven per cent and scored many high marks. There is every indication that he would have been successful but for the allegations in his New York City Police Department file.*fn4 In the private sector, he applied for numerous positions,*fn5 but was ultimately refused employment; again his personnel file seems to have prevented his employment.*fn6

The trial court dismissed the complaint in two stages: first, by holding that Velger's status was probationary and hence he had no property right in the position, and, second, by finding that he had failed to meet his burden of proof that a stigma had attached because of his discharge. Judgment was entered for the City of New York and its officials on all issues. We do not agree. We find it unnecessary to decide whether Velger had a property right in his position and we do not reach that point. We do, however, find that a stigma attached because of his dismissal and that he was, therefore, entitled to a hearing to confront the allegations placed in his personnel file. Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 33 L. Ed. 2d 548, 92 S. Ct. 2701 (1972); Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 33 L. Ed. 2d 570, 92 S. Ct. 2694 (1972).

1. The Nature of the Charge on which Dismissal was Predicated:

It stands to reason that any charge that justifies dismissal is a most serious one. Here the exact language of the charge is not known,*fn7 but it appears to state that Velger "while still a trainee... had put a revolver to his head in an apparent suicide attempt." Such a charge suggests to most of us such severe mental illness that it deprives one of the capacity to do any job well. It thus differs from the usual derogatory charge that is levelled at the capacity to do a specific job. Certainly, no more serious charge could be levelled at a police officer.

Moreover, the "rookie" officer has the greater hazard because he has none of the job protection guarantees that a seasoned officer enjoys. Ordinarily, he can be severed from the force without any notice of charges or a hearing being afforded him. Police authorities must, therefore, exercise the greatest degree of care in dealing with probationary officers to make certain not only that their discharge decisions are just but also that their reasons are kept confidential. Here New York City admits that it grants ready access to its confidential personnel files to all governmental police agencies. In a case like the present one this could have the effect of closing the public sector to the probationary police dischargee and depriving him of employment in the largest and most desirable segment of his profession. The same result, in reality, is true in the private sector because New York City answers all inquiries for permission to see personnel files with the suggestion that inspection will be permitted with the consent of the dischargee. The dischargee is then placed "between the devil and the deep blue sea"; he loses whatever his choice. Who would employ an applicant who refused to give authorization? Who would employ one who gives authorization but whose file suggests that he made an "attempt" at suicide?

2. The Requirements of Procedural Due Process:

In light of the rationale behind both Board of Regents v. Roth, supra, and Perry v. Sindermann, supra, we must reverse the lower court's judgment. Those cases teach that when either a deprivation of a property interest, such as in a permanent job, or a deprivation of liberty, such as in a stigma that operates to foreclose other employment opportunities, result from the decision to discharge, due process requires that notice of the charges and a hearing must be granted to the dischargee. Perhaps the discharge of a police officer is stigmatization per se. But we need not announce such a "brass-collar" rule, for here the record reeks of the stigma that attached to Velger. The stigma foreclosed employment in both the public and private sectors. First, the manner in which personnel records are made available to inquiring public and private employers insures that serious derogatory information in the file will stigmatize the dischargee. Second, the lax procedures in the practice of the New York City Police Department, as it discharges probationary officers without a statement of reasons or hearing, encourage the very harm that Roth and Perry urged be prevented. Here, from what little is known, Velger's accusers are not named and his actions are not described in any detail. The framework in which the alleged suicide attempt occurred included the presence of five fellow trainees, but no explanation exists for such an unlikely audience to an attempted suicide. No date or hour for the incident is specified. Although it allegedly occurred while Velger was a trainee, his appointment to patrolman was seven months old and he had been with the force three years before the discharge action, supposedly based upon the earlier incident, was taken.

As this Court so well stated in Lombard v. The Board of Education of the City of New York, 502 F.2d 631 (1974):

A charge of mental illness, purportedly supported by a finding of an administrative body, is a heavy burden for a young person to carry through life. A serious constitutional question arises if he has had no opportunity to meet the ...

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