U.S. Supreme Court Finds Sworn Testimony Outside Scope of Regular Job Duties Entitled to First Amendment Protection

by McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC
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While the labor and employment law world is abuzz after the decisions in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Harris v. Quinn (cases this Blog will cover in the coming days), the United States Supreme Court also issued a decision further clarifying protected speech under the First Amendment. In Lane v. Franks, et al., the Court analyzed whether a public employee, testifying under subpoena, was entitled to First Amendment protection when his testimony was outside of the scope of his job duties.

The employee, Edward Lane, was hired by Central Alabama Community College as Director of Community Intensive Training for Youth ("CITY"), a statewide program in Alabama for underprivileged youth. Shortly after his employment began he conducted an audit of CITY's expenses. The audit led to the termination of an Alabama State Representative, who was on CITY's payroll. Following the termination decision, Lane provided testimony against the Representative in support of an FBI investigation of the Representative. Shortly after his testimony, twenty-nine CITY employees were laid off, including Mr. Lane. While twenty-seven of these terminations were rescinded, Mr. Lane's was not.

Lane filed suit, claiming he was terminated in retaliation for providing testimony against the Representative. The District Court found that his testimony was not protected by the First Amendment. The District Court stated that public employees speaking pursuant to official job duties were "not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes." The District Court opined that Lane learned of the information included in his testimony while an employee of CITY, so his "speech [could] still be considered as part of his official job duties." Lane appealed, first to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and then to the United States Supreme Court.

In overturning the lower courts' decisions, the Supreme Court restated the special test applied to public employees for First Amendment protection purposes. The first part of this analysis examines whether the speech in question was made pursuant to official duties or as a citizen and whether the employee was speaking on a matter of public concern. If the employee is speaking as a citizen and on a matter of public concern, the second part of the test is whether the public employer has "adequate justification for treating the employee differently from any other member of the general public."

The Court noted that "[t]ruthful testimony under oath by a public employee outside the scope of his ordinary job duties is speech as a citizen for First Amendment purposes," even when that speech "relates to his public employment or concerns information learned during that employment." The Court noted that such testimony is a "quintessential example of speech as a citizen," as it comes with the obligation to tell the truth. This obligation is separate and distinct from any obligations a public employee may have to his employer.

The Court opined that the essential question is whether the relevant speech is "ordinarily within the scope of an employee's duties" and "not whether it merely concerns those duties." In its analysis, the Court found that such public employee speech holds special value because of how public employees gain knowledge, and is "necessary to prosecute corruption by public officials." The Court ultimately found Lane's sworn testimony, pursuant to a subpoena, to be speech as a citizen and on a matter of public concern. In applying the second step of the analysis, the Court found that the employer had no legitimate interest in treating Lane differently from any other member of the public, finding that his testimony did not involve any false statements or disclose any privileged or confidential information.

The Court's decision provides useful guidance to public employers in the area of First Amendment protection for public employees. However, future decisions will likely shed light onto when speech is "ordinarily within the scope of an employee's duties" sufficient to warrant First Amendment protection. Many employees, especially public employees, provide testimony on a regular basis pursuant to official job duties. Accordingly, while Lane is helpful, First Amendment issues must still be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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