Weekly Law Resume : Public Employer May Not Interfere With Employee's First Amendment Rights Absent Evidence that Employee's Conduct Caused or May Reasonably Cause Future Workplace Disruption

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Kathleen Nichols v. Laura Dancer, et al. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (September 15, 2011)

This case addresses the issue of balancing a public employee's interest in expressing his or her opinions on matters of public concern, and the public employer's interest in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.

Kathleen Nichols served as the administrative assistant to Jeffrey Blanck, the Washoe County School District's (the "District") general counsel. Mr. Blanck was suspended for alleged misuse of the District's funds. The District's Human Resources Director, Laura Dancer, temporarily transferred Ms. Nichols while the District decided what to do with Mr. Blanck's employment. It was undisputed that Ms. Nichols got along with her colleagues and there were no reports of any problems with her work.

Ms. Nichols attended a public meeting where the Board of Trustees met to consider Mr. Blanck's employment, and she sat next to Mr. Blanck, but did not speak to him. At the meeting, the Board announced that Mr. Blanck would not be retained as general counsel. The next day, Ms. Nichols was told that she could not return to the general counsel's office because sitting next to Mr. Blanck raised questions about her loyalty to the District. She was given a choice to remain in her current position or take early retirement. Ms. Nichols chose to retire and sued the District for violating her First Amendment rights. The District moved for summary judgment, which the District Court granted. The Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court's decision and remanded the case back to the District Court.

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