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A municipality cannot be ordered by a federal court to hold a “name-clearing” hearing after a jury has acquitted a public employee of criminal charges — even if the employee was fired upon his arrest and never rehired — because the criminal trial provided the worker an “ample opportunity” to vindicate his reputation, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. In Graham v. City of Philadelphia, a unanimous three-judge panel reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller that said plaintiff Kraig Graham, a former probationary police officer, was entitled to a name-clearing hearing after a jury acquitted him on charges of statutory sexual assault and corrupting the morals of a minor. Schiller found that Graham satisfied the so-called “stigma-plus” test because he was fired “amidst charges of illegal and immoral conduct,” and the city had made public statements about his arrest and firing. Graham’s reputation, Schiller found, was seriously damaged, affecting his chances of getting a new job. Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that “an acquittal on criminal charges does not prove that the defendant is innocent,” Schiller concluded that Graham was entitled to a name-clearing hearing because “the purposes of a criminal trial and a name-clearing hearing are distinct.” Now the 3rd Circuit has ruled that Graham has no valid due process claim because his criminal trial “constitutes ample ‘process’ obviating his claim for a name-clearing hearing.” Third Circuit Judge D. Michael Fisher conceded that Graham’s interests “are genuine and weighty” because he wants to remove any tarnish to his reputation caused by his arrest, the criminal charges and his firing. But Fisher found that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s due process jurisprudence, a hearing is required only when a person is deprived of a property interest. Graham can’t meet that test, Fisher found, because his criminal trial already provided him with ample opportunity to clear his name. “Graham nowhere suggests that his criminal trial was unfair or in any way suppressed his ability to refute the allegations � . Nor does Graham suggest that he might offer at a name-clearing hearing new evidence or evidence not presented at trial supporting his actual innocence,” Fisher wrote. “As such, Graham’s trial substantially vindicated his reputational interest, and significantly reduced the prospect that he would be erroneously deprived of that interest,” Fisher wrote in an opinion joined by 3rd Circuit Judges Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Thomas L. Ambro. Fisher found that a name-clearing hearing would have “little value” for Graham since it would “subject [him] to further public scrutiny” and give the city the opportunity to challenge his evidence of innocence, thereby “cast[ing] greater doubt on Graham’s innocence than now exists following his acquittal.” Graham’s interests also have to be balanced against the government’s, Fisher said, which include “conserving public resources.” “Requiring a name-clearing hearing under these circumstances would tend to undermine that interest,” Fisher wrote. The city also has a strong interest in preserving its ability to make personnel decisions and to communicate the reasons for those decisions to the public, Fisher found, “particularly where, as here, the decisions implicate matters of heightened public concern such as alleged sexual assault of a minor by a police officer.” Balancing the interests on both sides, Fisher concluded that Graham’s due process claim failed because his criminal trial “provided him ample opportunity to take and present evidence supporting his innocence, and thereby jettisoned any due process obligation to grant him a name-clearing hearing.” The city was represented in the appeal by Assistant City Solicitor Elise M. Bruhl. Graham was represented by attorney Tshaka H. Lafayette of Lafayette & Associates.

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