Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a public employee cannot be retaliated against by his employer based on testimony provided by him under subpoena in a criminal proceeding. In Lane v. Franks, the plaintiff was a community college employee who testified in the criminal trial of an Alabama state senator who was convicted of fraud relating to her job with the college. After being terminated, he sued under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, alleging that his termination was in retaliation for his earlier testimony.
The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court decision, finding that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects testimony by public employees in criminal proceedings. The Court rejected the employer’s contention that the testimony was not protected because it involved matters relating to his job, and not issued of broader public concern. The plaintiff’s testimony was not a regular part of his job duties, and clearly impacted matters of importance to the general public. However, the Court affirmed dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim against the college president, finding him protected from Section 1983 claims under qualified immunity.
This decision has important implications for state and municipal employers. The Supreme Court took a broad definition of protected speech in a whistleblower context. While individual statutes may give plaintiffs more direct legal remedies in cases of alleged retaliation, this case provides public employees with a constitutional basis for claims relating to discharge based on protected speech.