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Jury award vacated in free speech retaliation case

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A federal appeals court has vacated a $556,000 jury award to a Corpus Christi, Texas, city employee in a free speech retaliation case, stating the award was inappropriate because the worker’s action had been made in the ordinary course of her employment.

In October 2012, Nora G. Rodriguez, who worked as an administrative assistant to the director of the administrative division at Corpus Christi’s municipal court, witnessed an altercation between her supervisor, Monica Lewis, and another court employee, according to Tuesdays’ ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in Nora G. Rodriguez v. City of Corpus Christi.

Ms. Lewis asked Ms. Rodriguez to write a statement about what she had witnessed. Ms. Rodriguez obliged and forwarded her statement to the court’s human resources department. She was terminated in January 2013, and filed suit, alleging the city had fired her for exercising her First Amendment right to free speech. A jury in U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi awarded her a $556,000 judgment, and the city appealed.

Among the requirements for Ms. Rodriguez to successfully pursue her First Amendment retaliation claim is that she spoke as “a citizen on a matter of public concern,” said the unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel.

This was not the case, according to the ruling. “We conclude that Rodriguez’s statement was made in the ordinary course of her employment,” it said. 

Although Ms. Rodriguez “considered her action to be voluntary, she admitted that assistant director Monica Lewis, who had authority to assign Rodriguez work, requested that she make the statement to human resources. Rodriguez thus did not act solely on her own initiative but did so pursuant to a supervisor’s directive,” said the ruling.

“Furthermore, Rodriguez’s raising of concerns about an incident that she witnessed at work with her employer’s human resources department, rather than to the public, represents a chain-of-command complaint that is ordinarily within the scope of every public employee’s duty,” said the panel in ruling in the city’s favor.