Due Process Victory for Mississippi Library Employees
A federal court in Mississippi recently ruled that the Meridian-Lauderdale Public Library broke the law and deprived employee Sharon Smith of her constitutional rights. The case broke new legal ground and significantly expanded the rights enjoyed by all library employees in the state.
Sharon Smith was working as the public relations director at the library in Meridian. She was fired by library director Barbara Gough
without cause - that is, for no reason - after only a few months on the job. Neither Ms. Gough nor anyone else at the library would tell her why she was fired. She asked for a hearing with the library's executive board. The board refused to hear what she had to say.
Jackson lawyer Joel Dillard brought a lawsuit against the government on behalf of Sharon Smith. The lawsuit asserted that Ms. Smith has a constitutional right to due process. Ms. Smith argued to the court that she should have been given notice of the reasons for her termination and an opportunity to explain her side of the story.
The government was represented by Butler Snow, a corporate firm with 131 attorneys in the Jackson office and 25 additional offices throughout the nation. The government argued that library employees are
at will and can be fired for any reason or for no reason at all. They noted that almost all Mississippi employees are
at will and have no due process rights.
But the plaintiff identified a state statute which said that
library staff can be fired for
good cause and that they have the right to a hearing before the library board. This particular argument was a new one which had never been heard in the courts before.
Federal Judge Carlton Reeves ruled on the case. He found that Ms. Smith was correct, and that library employees can only be fired for
good cause under the statute, and therefore that they have a right to due process under the United States Constitution. He further ruled - in judgment on the pleadings - that Ms. Smith had proven her case, and that the library had violated her constitutional rights:
It is undisputed that Smith did not receive any sort of notice or hearing prior to her termination. Ultimately, she received no process at all. Thus, Smith's motion for judgment on the pleadings in regards to her procedural due process claim is granted. The only remaining issue is the
determination of damages. Read the full decision here.
This is a big victory, said Dillard in a statement concerning the case.
For the first time, the courts have told the government that it must give its library staff basic due process. To throw away a career - without even telling the employee what went wrong - is the kind of arbitrary, callus behavior we expect in a dictatorship, not a free democracy. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect - including by their boss. My mission is to bring democratic values of due process and free speech to every single employee in the state. This case is an important victory in that fight.
When I am doing my job and doing it well, Smith said
it is really unfair to be blindsided like this. It is good to know that one person can stand up and make a difference. Not just for myself, but for everyone else who comes after me.
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