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Judy Greenwald

Public employees who testify about corruption are protected: Supreme Court

June 20, 2014 - 5:06pm


The First Amendment protects from retaliation public employees who provide truthful sworn testimony that is compelled by subpoena outside the course of their ordinary job responsibilities, said the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling.

In 2006, Central Alabama Community College in Alexander City, Alabama, hired Edward Lane on a probationary basis as its director of Community Intensive Training for Youth, a statewide program for underprivileged youth, according to Thursday's ruling in Edward R. Lane v. Steve Franks et al.

At the time of his appointment, the program faced “significant financial difficulties,” according to the ruling. An audit revealed that Suzanne Schmitz, an Alabama state representative on its payroll, had not been reporting to her office at the youth program, and Mr. Lane terminated her.

Ms. Schmitz was later indicted on mail fraud and theft charges, and Mr. Lane eventually testified against her under subpoena at two trials. After a jury failed to reach a verdict at the first trial, she was convicted following the second trial on three counts of mail fraud and four counts of theft concerning a program receiving federal funds. She was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay $177,252 in restitution and forfeiture, according to the ruling.

In November 2008, Mr. Lane began reporting to Steve Franks, who had become president of the community college in January 2008. In January 2009, Mr. Franks decided to terminate 29 probationary employees, including Mr. Lane, but shortly thereafter rescinded all but two of the terminations: those of Mr. Lane and one other employee.

In January 2011, Mr. Lane sued Mr. Franks in his individual and official capacities, charging he had violated the First Amendment by firing him in retaliation for his testimony against Ms. Schmitz. Mr. Franks later retired, and the current acting president of the college, Susan Burrow, replaced him as a defendant while the Lane case was pending.

The U.S. District Court in Birmingham, Alabama, and then the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta granted Mr. Franks' motions dismissing the case, with the appeals court later holding Mr. Lane did not have First Amendment protection against retaliation.

But the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.

“Public employees do not renounce their citizenship when they accept employment, and this Court has cautioned time and again that public employers may not condition employment on the relinquishment of constitutional rights,” says the opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“The importance of public speech is especially evident in the context of this case: a public corruption scandal,” says the ruling. “It would be antithetical to our jurisprudence to conclude that the very kind of speech necessary to prosecute corruption by public offices — speech by public employees regarding information learned through their employment —may never form the basis for a First Amendment retaliation claim. Such a rule would place public employees who witness corruption in an impossible position, torn between an obligation to testify truthfully and the desire to avoid retaliation and keep their jobs.”

The opinion held, however, that the claims against Mr. Franks in his individual capacity should be dismissed on the basis of qualified immunity. However, that does not resolve the claims against Ms. Burrow in her official capacity, said the ruling, in remanding the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito voted in favor of a concurring opinion.

 



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