Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth

Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth is one of two key 1972 decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court that helped to establish the parameters of federal due process for employees in higher education. The Court’s rulings in Roth and in Perry v. Sindermann considered the due process requirements when employees are facing the nonrenewal of their employment contracts.

The last half of the 20th century witnessed a great expansion of individual rights in the workplace, including federal procedural due process protections for public employees. Even so, the protections of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment do not apply universally to all employment situations. One area of dispute involves the due process rights of faculty members whose contracts are not renewed. In Roth, a faculty member who had been hired under a one-year contract and not reemployed was not given reasons his employment was terminated or an opportunity for a hearing. The Supreme Court ruled that public institutions of higher education must provide due process to employees facing the nonrenewal of their contracts only if they have liberty or property interests that trigger Fourteenth Amendment protections. 

Facts of the Case

Wisconsin State University–Oshkosh employed David Roth as an assistant professor of political science under a one-year contract for 1967–1968. He completed that academic year, but university officials informed him prior to February 1, 1968, that they would not renew his contract for another year. Under Wisconsin law, faculty members could earn tenure, with accompanying due process protections for nonrenewal, after serving four years under one-year contracts. Until then, faculty members served without tenure, meaning that they lacked due process rights, including the right to receive statements of reasons their contracts were not renewed or hearings when their employment was terminated. 

Roth filed suit in a federal trial court in Wisconsin, alleging that officials violated his Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights by not renewing his contract because of his constitutionally protected criticism of the university’s administration. However, because the trial court stayed proceedings on this issue, the Supreme Court did not have to consider this question. Roth also alleged that the university’s administration violated his right to procedural due process when officials elected not to renew his contract without providing him with either reasons for their decision or an opportunity to challenge their action at a hearing. The federal trial court and Seventh Circuit both entered judgments in favor of Roth, directing university officials to provide him with reasons and a hearing. The university appealed on the procedural issue. The question before the Supreme Court was whether a faculty member who was employed under a one-year agreement had a right to federal procedural due process when facing the nonrenewal of his contract. 

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

The Supreme Court reversed in favor of the university, finding that officials had not violated Roth’s procedural due process rights. Justice Potter Stewart, delivering the opinion of the Court, began by recognizing that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees liberty and property generally, but that it provides procedural due process protections only when there is a deprivation of a liberty or property interest. According to the Court, liberty interests exist when an employer’s actions place the worker’s good name, honor, and integrity at stake or create a stigma that blocks the employee from other employment opportunities. Insofar as the actions of university officials in not renewing Roth’s contract did not damage his reputation, his standing in the community, or his ability to procure future employment opportunities even within the Wisconsin state university system, the Court was satisfied that the their actions did not deprive Roth of a liberty interest such that he lacked a right to due process. The Court noted that when Roth’s contract was simply not renewed and while he was free to seek other employment, the actions of officials did not violate a protected liberty interest.

The Supreme Court added that the Fourteenth Amendment also guarantees due process protections to those who are deprived of property interests, a specific benefit that employees do not necessarily possess as a condition of employment. In order to have property interests, the Court explained that employees must have more than abstract needs, desires, or unilateral expectations of such interests. Rather, the Court pointed out that the individuals must have “a legitimate claim of entitlement to it” (p. 577). The Court held that faculty members in higher education facing dismissal have property interests only through tenure and their contracts. In this regard, the Court indicated that independent sources, such as state laws, rules, and understandings, not the U.S. Constitution, create property interests. The Court reasoned that Roth’s only property interests were secured in his employment agreement, which ended on June 30, 1969, and that the agreement provided no due process provisions with respect to renewal. The Court concluded that because no state statute or university regulation created any legitimate claim to reemployment or procedural due process, Roth lacked a property interest that would have required university officials to afford him a hearing when they chose not to renew his employment contract. 

Implications

Roth has three key implications for due process rights of educators in higher education. First, Roth underscores the vital role that state statutes and university policies play in determining whether, and to what extent, educators possess due process protections. In Perry v. Sindermann, which was resolved on the same day as Roth, the Supreme Court also recognized that a university’s de facto, rather than formal, tenure policy may create a property interest for employees. 

Second, Roth stands for the proposition that employees who have liberty or property interests must be provided with procedural due process, typically including statements of the reasons their contracts are not being renewed along with opportunities for hearings to challenge such actions. After Roth, in Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill (1985), the Supreme Court extended due process protections to the pretermination stage for employees with property interests. 

Third, Roth is important because it highlights the fact that although employees may have due process guarantees created by their employment contracts, these normally exist only for the duration of their contracts. Moreover, when employees do not have contractual rights or liberty or property interests, officials at their universities or colleges may choose to not rehire them without providing explanations or opportunities to present their arguments at hearings. While a sense of fairness might dictate that employers provide due process, and a denial of due process may encourage grievances along with litigation, the Supreme Court made it clear that Roth enables employers to withhold due process in contract nonrenewal situations when employees have neither liberty nor property interests at stake.

Ralph Sharp

See also Due Process, Substantive and Procedural; Due Process Rights in Faculty and Staff Dismissal

Legal Citations

  • Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564 (1972).
  • Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985).
  • Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593 (1972).