Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The requirements of due process, as has been noted, depend upon the nature of the interest at stake, while the form of due process required is determined by the weight of that interest balanced against the opposing interests. 1 The currently prevailing standard is that formulated in Mathews v. Eldridge, 2 which concerned termination of Social Security benefits.
Identification of the specific dictates of due process generally requires consideration of three distinct factors: first, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and, finally, the Government’s interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirements would entail.
The termination of welfare benefits in Goldberg v. Kelly, 3 which could have resulted in a
devastating loss of food and shelter, had required a pre-deprivation hearing. The termination of Social Security benefits at issue in Mathews would require less protection, however, because those benefits are not based on financial need and a terminated recipient would be able to apply for welfare if need be. Moreover, the determination of ineligibility for Social Security benefits more often turns upon routine and uncomplicated evaluations of data, reducing the likelihood of error, a likelihood found significant in Goldberg. Finally, the administrative burden and other societal costs involved in giving Social Security recipients a pre-termination hearing would be high. Therefore, a post-termination hearing, with full retroactive restoration of benefits, if the claimant prevails, was found satisfactory. 4
Application of the Mathews standard and other considerations brought some noteworthy changes to the process accorded debtors and installment buyers. Earlier cases, which had focused upon the interests of the holders of the property in not being unjustly deprived of the goods and funds in their possession, leaned toward requiring pre-deprivation hearings. Newer cases, however, look to the interests of creditors as well.
The reality is that both seller and buyer had current, real interests in the property, and the definition of property rights is a matter of state law. Resolution of the due process question must take account not only of the interests of the buyer of the property but those of the seller as well. 5
Thus, Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 6 which mandated pre-deprivation hearings before wages may be garnished, has apparently been limited to instances when wages, and perhaps certain other basic necessities, are in issue and the consequences of deprivation would be severe. 7 Fuentes v. Shevin, 8 which struck down a replevin statute that authorized the seizure of property (here household goods purchased on an installment contract) simply upon the filing of an ex parte application and the posting of bond, has been limited, 9 so that an appropriately structured ex parte judicial determination before seizure is sufficient to satisfy due process. 10 Thus, laws authorizing sequestration, garnishment, or other seizure of property of an alleged defaulting debtor need only require that (1) the creditor furnish adequate security to protect the debtor’s interest, (2) the creditor make a specific factual showing before a neutral officer or magistrate, not a clerk or other such functionary, of probable cause to believe that he is entitled to the relief requested, and (3) an opportunity be assured for an adversary hearing promptly after seizure to determine the merits of the controversy, with the burden of proof on the creditor. 11
Similarly, applying the Mathews v. Eldridge standard in the context of government employment, the Court has held, albeit by a combination of divergent opinions, that the interest of the employee in retaining his job, the governmental interest in the expeditious removal of unsatisfactory employees, the avoidance of administrative burdens, and the risk of an erroneous termination combine to require the provision of some minimum pre-termination notice and opportunity to respond, followed by a full post-termination hearing, complete with all the procedures normally accorded and back pay if the employee is successful. 12 Where the adverse action is less than termination of employment, the governmental interest is significant, and where reasonable grounds for such action have been established separately, then a prompt hearing held after the adverse action may be sufficient. 13 In other cases, hearings with even minimum procedures may be dispensed with when what is to be established is so pro forma or routine that the likelihood of error is very small. 14 In a case dealing with negligent state failure to observe a procedural deadline, the Court held that the claimant was entitled to a hearing with the agency to pass upon the merits of his claim prior to dismissal of his action. 15
In Brock v. Roadway Express, Inc., 16 a Court plurality applied a similar analysis to governmental regulation of private employment, determining that an employer may be ordered by an agency to reinstate a
whistle-blower employee without an opportunity for a full evidentiary hearing, but that the employer is entitled to be informed of the substance of the employee’s charges, and to have an opportunity for informal rebuttal. The principal difference with the Mathews v. Eldridge test was that here the Court acknowledged two conflicting private interests to weigh in the equation: that of the employer
in controlling the makeup of its workforce and that of the employee in not being discharged for whistleblowing. Whether the case signals a shift away from evidentiary hearing requirements in the context of regulatory adjudication will depend on future developments. 17
A delay in retrieving money paid to the government is unlikely to rise to the level of a violation of due process. In City of Los Angeles v. David, 18 a citizen paid a $134.50 impoundment fee to retrieve an automobile that had been towed by the city. When he subsequently sought to challenge the imposition of this impoundment fee, he was unable to obtain a hearing until 27 days after his car had been towed. The Court held that the delay was reasonable, as the private interest affected – the temporary loss of the use of the money – could be compensated by the addition of an interest payment to any refund of the fee. Further factors considered were that a 30-day delay was unlikely to create a risk of significant factual errors, and that shortening the delay significantly would be administratively burdensome for the city.
In another context, the Supreme Court applied the Mathews test to strike down a provision in Colorado's Exoneration Act. 19 That statute required individuals whose criminal convictions had been invalidated to prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence in order to recoup any fines, penalties, court costs, or restitution paid to the state as a result of the conviction. 20 The Court, noting that
[a]bsent conviction of crime, one is presumed innocent, 21 concluded that all three considerations under Mathews
weigh[ed] decisively against Colorado's scheme. 22 Specifically, the Court reasoned that (1) those affected by the Colorado statute have an
obvious interest in regaining their funds; 23 (2) the burden of proving one's innocence by
clear and convincing evidence unacceptably risked erroneous deprivation of those funds; 24 and (3) the state had
no countervailing interests in withholding money to which it had
zero claim of right. 25 As a result, the Court held that the state could not impose
anything more than minimal procedures for the return of funds that occurred as a result of a conviction that was subsequently invalidated. 26
In another respect, the balancing standard of Mathews has resulted in states' having wider flexibility in determining what process is required. For instance, in an alteration of previously existing law, no hearing is required if a state affords the claimant an adequate alternative remedy, such as a judicial action for damages or breach of contract. 27 Thus, the Court, in passing on the infliction of corporal punishment in the public schools, held that the existence of common-law tort remedies for wrongful or excessive administration of punishment, plus the context in which the punishment was administered (i.e., the ability of the teacher to observe directly the infraction in question, the openness of the school environment, the visibility of the confrontation to other students and faculty, and the likelihood of parental reaction to unreasonableness in punishment), made reasonably assured the probability that a child would not be punished without cause or excessively. 28 The Court did not, however, inquire about the availability of judicial remedies for such violations in the state in which the case arose. 29
The Court has required greater protection from property deprivations resulting from operation of established state procedures than from those resulting from random and unauthorized acts of state employees, 30 and presumably this distinction still holds. Thus, the Court has held that post-deprivation procedures would not satisfy due process if it is
the state system itself that destroys a complainant’s property interest. 31 Although the Court briefly entertained the theory that a negligent (i.e., non-willful) action by a state official was sufficient to invoke due process, and that a post-deprivation hearing regarding such loss was required, 32 the Court subsequently overruled this holding, stating that
the Due Process Clause is simply not implicated by a negligent act of an official causing unintended loss of or injury to life, liberty, or property. 33
rare and extraordinary situations, where summary action is necessary to prevent imminent harm to the public, and the private interest infringed is reasonably deemed to be of less importance, government can take action with no notice and no opportunity to defend, subject to a later full hearing. 34 Examples are seizure of contaminated foods or drugs or other such commodities to protect the consumer, 35 collection of governmental revenues, 36 and the seizure of enemy property in wartime. 37 Thus, citing national security interests, the Court upheld an order, issued without notice and an opportunity to be heard, excluding a short-order cook employed by a concessionaire from a Naval Gun Factory, but the basis of the five-to-four decision is unclear. 38 On the one hand, the Court was ambivalent about a right-privilege distinction; 39 on the other hand, it contrasted the limited interest of the cook – barred from the base, she was still free to work at a number of the concessionaire’s other premises – with the government’s interest in conducting a high-security program. 40