Tuesday, August 15, 2017
The Seventh Circuit ruled that state workers' compensation arbitrators did not have a free-speech claim against the governor for not re-appointing them in retaliation for their earlier lawsuit against the governor for changes to the worker-compensation system.
The case is notable, because the court applied restrictive circuit law on policymakers' First Amendment retaliation claim (and not the more general, and more speech-friendly, Pickering test for most public employees), and because the court applied this law to a claim for retaliation for a lawsuit (and not a more familiar form of public speech, like an op-ed).
The case arose when Illinois changed its workers' compensation law. Among other changes, the state changed the appointment schedule for workers' compensation arbitrators. In particular, it terminated all arbitrators' six-year appointments effective July 1, 2011, and provided for executive appointments (with advice and consent of the state senate) for staggered three-year terms for future arbitrators.
Some of the arbitrators sued, arguing that the change violated due process. While that suit was pending, the governor appointed and reappointed arbitrators, but not the plaintiffs in the due-process suit. So they sued again, this time for retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights in bringing the original due-process suit. They claimed that the governor declined to reappointment them only because they filed that earlier suit, which, they claimed, was "important to, in a public forum, hash out concerns . . . regarding the workers' compensation reforms and to outline that the governor of the State of Illinois had violated the United States Constitution."
The district court tossed the suit, concluding, under Pickering, that the earlier due-process suit was not speech on a matter of public concern.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed, but on a slightly different ground. The Seventh Circuit applied its "policymaker corollary" to Pickering--a circuit rule that derives from Elrod v. Burns and Branti v. Finkel. In those two cases, the Supreme Court said that as a general matter government employers can't fire public employees on the basis of political affiliation. But the Court also recognized an exception for employees who occupy policymaking or confidential positions, thus ensuring that elected officials wouldn't be "undercut by tactics obstructing the implementation of policies . . . presumably sanctioned by the electorate."
The Seventh Circuit's "policymaking corollary" takes the Elrod and Branti exception a step farther, to policymakers' speech:
Instead, under the "policy-maker corollary to the Pickering analysis, the First Amendment does not prohibit the discharge of a policy-making employee when that individual has engaged in speech on a matter of public concern in a manner that is critical of superiors or their stated policies."
The court concluded that the arbitrators were "policymakers," because "the position authorizes, either directly or indirectly, meaningful input into government decisionmaking on issues where there is room for principled disagreement," and because "the position entails the exercise of a substantial amount of political (as distinct from professional) discretion." It further concluded that the due-process lawsuit amounted to "speech . . . in a manner that is critical of superiors or their stated policies."
The ruling ends the arbitrators' case.