First Amendment Protects Public Employees for Sworn Testimony Given Outside Scope of Regular Job Duties on Matters of Public Concern

by Best Best & Krieger LLP

U.S. Supreme Court Makes Unanimous Ruling in Lane v. Franks

The First Amendment protects a public employee from adverse employment action taken in retaliation for providing truthful sworn testimony, compelled by subpoena, outside the course of the employee’s ordinary job responsibilities, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision.

The case arose from a corruption scandal involving Community Intensive Training for Youth, a program for underprivileged youth operated by Central Alabama Community College. Edward Lane was CITY’s director. While conducting an audit of CITY’s expenses, Lane discovered that Suzanne Schmitz, an Alabama state representative on CITY’s payroll, had not been reporting for work. Lane terminated Schmitz’ employment.

Federal authorities later indicted Schmitz on charges of mail fraud and theft. Lane testified under subpoena regarding the events that led to his terminating Schmitz. Schmitz was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. CACC’s president, Steve Franks, then terminated Lane in a claimed effort to address financial difficulties within the CITY program.

Lane sued Franks in his individual and official capacities under 42 USC section 1983, alleging that Franks violated the First Amendment by firing him in retaliation for testifying against Schmitz. The Eleventh Circuit held that Lane’s testimony was not entitled to First Amendment protection, and affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment for Franks. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve what it perceived as discord among the Courts of Appeal.

The Court applied the balancing framework articulated in Pickering v. Board of Education to weigh the interests of the employee, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern against those of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of its public services. The Court noted that its previous holding in Garcetti v. Ceballos distinguished between “employee speech” and “citizen speech” in public employment. Garcetti held that the First Amendment does not insulate public employees from employer discipline for statements made pursuant to their official duties.

Lane’s situation, the Court reasoned, was different. The giving of truthful testimony under oath was protected “citizen speech” because it was outside the scope of his normal job duties — even though the testimony related to his public employment and information he derived from that employment. The Court further opined that Lane’s testimony involved a matter of significant public concern: corruption in a public program and misuse of state funds.

The Court found that CACC had not come close to filling the employer’s side of the Pickering scale. CACC presented no evidence that Lane’s testimony was false, disclosed sensitive information, or otherwise justified treating Lane differently than any other member of the public. Thus, the Court held that Lane’s “citizen speech” was entitled to First Amendment protection.

The Court went on to decide that the claims against Franks in his individual capacity should be dismissed based on qualified immunity. The Court concluded that conflicting legal precedents among the Courts of Appeal did not preclude Franks from holding a reasonable belief that CACC could fire Lane for testifying in the criminal proceeding against Schmitz. The Court ruled, however, that Lane had a viable section 1983 claim against Franks and his successor in their official capacities and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings.

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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