On June 19, 2014, the United States Supreme Court decided Lane v. Franks, No. 13-483, holding that a public employee's sworn testimony is entitled to First Amendment protection when it is given outside the scope of ordinary job duties, but that the government official who terminated an employee based on such speech was entitled to qualified immunity because the law in the governing jurisdiction had not clearly established that it would be unconstitutional to terminate the employee.
In 2006, Edward Lane was hired as the director of an Alabama statewide program for underprivileged youth. When he was hired, he investigated the program's finances and discovered that Suzanne Schmitz, an Alabama state representative on the program's payroll, had not been reporting to work. Lane fired Schmitz, who was later tried and convicted of mail fraud and theft concerning a program receiving federal funds. Lane was subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury and at Schmitz's criminal trial.
Approximately one year later, Lane was terminated by Steve Franks, then president of a state college that oversaw the program that Lane directed.
Lane sued Franks in his individual and official capacities under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Franks retaliated against Lane for his testimony against Schmitz, in violation of the First Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment for Franks, holding that he was entitled to qualified immunity because a reasonable government official in Franks's position would not have had reason to believe that the Constitution protected Lane's testimony. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, relying on the Supreme Court's decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), in concluding that the First Amendment did not protect Lane's speech because he spoke as a public employee, not a private citizen, when he testified at Schmitz's trial.
The Supreme Court reversed in part. The Court began by holding that Lane's testimony at Schmitz's trial was protected by the First Amendment under the two-part Garcetti test. First, the Court concluded that Lane spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern. The Court reasoned that Lane's speech was as a citizen, rather than as a public employee, on a matter of public concern because Lane's usual job responsibilities did not include testifying in court under oath. Although the subject of Lane's testimony concerned his public employment and related to information gained through that employment, he testified as a private citizen who had been summoned to testify under a subpoena. And testimony regarding corruption by an elected official in connection with a public program clearly addressed a matter of public concern. Second, the Court held that, under Garcetti, Lane's employer had demonstrated no government interest for treating Lane differently than any other member of the public as a result of the government's needs as an employer.
But the Supreme Court went on to hold that even though Franks violated the First Amendment when he terminated Lane, Franks was entitled to qualified immunity for the claims against him in his individual capacity because under Eleventh Circuit law at the time that Franks terminated Lane, Franks could have reasonably believed the termination did not violate the First Amendment. Even though the Eleventh Circuit's law on the matter was incorrect, and other circuits had decided otherwise, it was the governing law at the time, and therefore entitled Franks to immunity.
Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the unanimous Court. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion, in which Justices Scalia and Alito joined.
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