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Public-sector HR director is immune from employee’s lawsuit, 11th Circuit holds

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Dive Brief:

  • An HR director for Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University is entitled to qualified immunity from a lawsuit claiming she illegally denied a professor procedural due process by closing an internal grievance he filed to dispute his pay, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a decision Friday (Seif v. Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University).
  • In 2011, the professor wrote a memo to AAMU’s administration requesting a pay increase. AAMU denied the request, and the professor filed a grievance with its HR department. A faculty committee reviewed the grievance and initially found it “grievable” before reversing course, the 11th Circuit said. The HR director told the professor his complaint was ineligible for grievance and “considered closed” under AAMU policies.
  • A district court found in favor of the professor, holding that AAMU’s employee handbook allowed for grievance of a salary-related complaint and that closing the grievance constituted deprivation of a property interest. But the 11th Circuit reversed, holding that the HR director did not act in an objectively unreasonable manner and was therefore entitled to immunity.

Dive Insight:

In its decision, the 11th Circuit said qualified immunity shields government employees from lawsuits in their individual capacities for discretionary actions performed as part of their duties. This applies as long as the official in question “‘acted in an objectively reasonable manner,’” the court added, quoting a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The HR director acted reasonably in closing the professor’s grievance because she did not have “fair warning” that the professor was entitled to grieve the pay dispute, the 11th Circuit said. It applied a three-part test to determine whether the professor showed a clear, established right to a grievance and concluded that he failed to do so.

Specifically, the 11th Circuit clashed with the district court on the meaning of “property interest” and whether it extends to a salary dispute under faculty-specific policies. It concluded that AAMU “did not assure or [promise]” the plaintiff that he would be entitled to file a grievance and that prior precedent “did not establish ‘obvious clarity’ that university employees have a property interest in any and all internal dispute processes.”

Part of the court’s analysis focused on AAMU’s employee handbook, which included language noting that the university’s policies and procedures were subject to change when deemed appropriate by AAMU. “So even if [the plaintiff’s] salary dispute was grievable under the handbook when he first filed it, Alabama A&M retained discretion to deviate from its policy …,” the 11th Circuit said.

The case may speak to the importance of maintaining a robust employee handbook or similar document spelling out the details of key employment policies. Sources who previously spoke to HR Dive said employers may decide to supplement their handbooks with additional documentation accessible to employees available on internal forums.

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