Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Firing of East Tennessee Firefighter

June 12, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court today held that a city’s employee handbook did not give a firefighter who was discharged a right to stay in his job. The Court clarified that employees can claim rights based on employee handbooks only when the handbooks say specifically they are intended to be a contract.

Joshua Keller was hired by the City of Cleveland as a firefighter in December 2008. In 2009, he was convicted of driving under the influence. The city allowed him to remain employed as a firefighter if he underwent counseling for alcohol abuse.

Two years later, Mr. Keller was drinking with some friends at his home. A fight broke out and Mr. Keller fired his gun twice, but did not hit anyone. The police officer who investigated said Mr. Keller was “highly intoxicated.” He was charged with reckless endangerment and aggravated assault. He pled guilty to simple assault.

The city’s fire chief recommended dismissing Mr. Keller. The fire chief said he could not condone this behavior from a firefighter and needed to uphold the standards of the fire department. The city agreed with his recommendation and discharged Mr. Keller.

Under policies in the city’s employee handbook, Mr. Keller filed an appeal to the city manager. After a hearing, the city manager upheld the decision to fire Mr. Keller.  

Mr. Keller filed a lawsuit against the City of Cleveland in the Bradley County Chancery Court. The lawsuit claimed Mr. Keller was deprived of his constitutional right to due process, based on policies and procedures in the city’s employee handbook.

The chancery court held that Mr. Keller had due process rights based on the employee handbook, but it dismissed his lawsuit because after he was fired Mr. Keller did not make reasonable efforts to find other employment.

Mr. Keller appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals. That court agreed with the chancery court’s holding that Mr. Keller had due process rights based on the employee handbook, but it reversed the chancery court’s dismissal of the lawsuit and held that the city had to pay damages to Mr. Keller. The Tennessee Supreme Court then granted the city’s request to appeal.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court pointed out that, in Tennessee, most employees are “at-will” employees, that is, they are hired for an indefinite period of time. At-will employees can legally be fired—and can quit—for any reason, with or without cause, so long as there is not unlawful discrimination based on race or other protected categories.

To be entitled to due process protection, Mr. Keller had to show he had a property interest in his employment that is protected under the Constitution, such as a contract right to continued employment. Mr. Keller claimed he had constitutionally protected property rights based on the city’s employee handbook, and argued that the procedures in the handbook were unconstitutional.

The Court explained that employers can adopt policies and procedures to promote fair, consistent treatment of employees, and can put those policies and procedures in an employee handbook.  Unless the employee handbook says specifically that employer intends the handbook to be a contract with employees, the handbook will not change employees’ at-will status or give them a right to continued employment.

In this case, the city’s employee handbook said the opposite; it said specifically that the procedures in the handbook were not intended to be a contract and that all city employees were at-will employees. Under those circumstances, the Court said, Mr. Keller had no constitutionally protected property interest in his employment and no basis to make a due process claim against the City of Cleveland.

The Court held in favor of the City of Cleveland and dismissed Mr. Keller’s lawsuit. 

This case was heard in Kingsport as part of the Supreme Court’s award-winning SCALES program.  SCALES stands for Supreme Court Advancing Legal Education for Students and brings the Supreme Court oral arguments directly to high school and college students.  To read the unanimous opinion in Joshua Keller v. Janice Casteel et al., authored by Justice Holly Kirby, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.