A rep to protect

A lawsuit involving an anti-fascist group caught up in The Red Scare laid the groundwork for the former Keizer city manager to receive a six-figure severance package.

Since his resignation after discharging a gun in his office, Chris Eppley has been hired by Marion County as a community development manager and appointed the temporary city manager of Detroit. CORRECTED: As a temporary employee Eppley will not receive benefits meaning Keizer residents will still be paying for insurance coverage. Eppley’s wages will be paid through grant programs. .

In a previous edition of the Keizertimes, the paper examined how due process relates to the property rights of public employees. Since that time, Kathy Peck, Keizer’s human resources attorney, responded to a list of questions regarding how Eppley’s due process rights were violated with a single statement, “Your questions involve attorney-client privileged matters which I’m not at liberty to discuss. I am, however, able to share that the due process rights which were at issue involve liberty, not property, interest.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has determined public employees have a unique privilege when it comes to employment – protection of professional reputation.

While the court has massaged the application of the right of public employees to avoid damage to their reputation, the foundations are rooted in a court decision involving an anti-fascist group in the 1950s, Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee v. McGrath.

The court determined that the nation’s attorney general had damaged the reputations of the members of the anti-fascist committee when he included the group in a list of “subversive” activities. The court expressly affirmed, however, that public employees, such as a city manager, were in a class all their own.

Justice Robert H. Jackson, in a concurring opinion wrote, “To be deprived not only of present government employment but of future opportunity for it certainly is no small injury when government employment so dominates the field of opportunity.”

In other words, when the government is the most prevalent employer for certain professions, damage to an individual’s reputation deprives them of their ability to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For the city of Keizer, it meant Eppley might have argued that his reputation was irreversibly damaged when an incident report he authored regarding the discharge of the gun was made public.

In later court cases, the court determined that employees of private companies have no such protection. 

However, pursuing court remedy for damaging Eppley’s reputation might not have been as simple as it sounds.

In Codd v. Velger, a police officer was hired on a parobationary basis with a police department and gave the employer permission to access his personnel file at a previous department. The file included an investigation into an “apparent suicide attempt.” No conclusion was reached, but the officer’s employment was terminated and he filed suit claiming he had been stigmatized and his reputation damaged.

The U.S. Supreme Court determined the officer’s case was unfounded because he never denied the substantial facts purporting the incident had taken place. Claims of stigmatization and reputational damage must be rooted in “some factual dispute between an employer and a discharged employee which has some significant bearing on the employee’s reputation.”

Given that Eppley authored the incident report that was made public, proving a factual dispute might have been a difficult hurdle to overcome had the Keizer City Council terminated him and a dispute ended up in court.