Thursday, June 19, 2014

Court Upholds Right of Public Employees to Testify

ScotusThe Supreme Court issued its decision in Lane v. Franks, today, holding unanimously that a public employee is entitled to First Amendment protection for testifying in court where testifying is not a part of that employee's regular job duties.  The Court further held that the individual defendant had qualified immunity because circuit court precedent was not clear enough. Here is the syllabus:

1. Lane’s sworn testimony outside the scope of his ordinary job duties is entitled to First Amendment protection. Pp. 6–13.

(a)  Pickering v. Board of Ed. of Township High School Dist. 205, Will Cty., 391 U. S. 563, 568, requires balancing “the interests of the[employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.” Under the first step of the Pickering analysis, if the speech is made pursuant to the employee’s ordinary job duties, then the employee is not speaking as a citizen for First Amendment purposes, and the inquiry ends. Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U. S. 410, 421. But if the “employee spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern,” the inquiry turns to “whether the relevant government entity had an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from any other member of the general public.” Id., at 418. Pp. 6–8.

(b)  Lane’s testimony is speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern. Pp. 8–12.

(1)  Sworn testimony in judicial proceedings is a quintessential example of citizen speech for the simple reason that anyone who testifies in court bears an obligation, to the court and society at large, to tell the truth. That obligation is distinct and independent from any separate obligations a testifying public employee might have to his employer. The Eleventh Circuit read Garcetti far too broadly in holding that Lane did not speak as a citizen when he testified simply because he learned of the subject matter of that testimony in the course of his employment. Garcetti said nothing about speech that relates to public employment or concerns information learned in the course of that employment. The critical question under Garcetti is whether the speech at issue is itself ordinarily within the scope of an employee’s duties, not whether it merely concerns those duties. Indeed, speech by public employees on subject matter related to their employment holds special value precisely because those employees gain knowledge of matters of public concern through their employment. Pp. 9–11.

(2) Whether speech is a matter of public concern turns on the “content, form, and context” of the speech. Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 147–148. Here, corruption in a public program and misuse of state funds obviously involve matters of significant public concern. See Garcetti, 547 U. S., at 425. And the form and context of the speech—sworn testimony in a judicial proceeding—fortify that conclusion. See United States v. Alvarez, 567 U. S. ___, ___. Pp. 11–12.

(c) Turning to Pickering’s second step, the employer’s side of the scale is entirely empty. Respondents do not assert, and cannot demonstrate, any government interest that tips the balance in their favor—for instance, evidence that Lane’s testimony was false or erroneous or that Lane unnecessarily disclosed sensitive, confidential, or privileged information while testifying. Pp. 12–13.

2. Franks is entitled to qualified immunity for the claims against him in his individual capacity. The question here is whether Franks reasonably could have believed that, when he fired Lane, a government employer could fire an employee because of testimony the employee gave, under oath and outside the scope of his ordinary job responsibilities. See Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U. S. ___, ___. At the relevant time, Eleventh Circuit precedent did not preclude Franks from holding that belief, and no decision of this Court was sufficiently clear to cast doubt on controlling Circuit precedent. Any discrepancies in Eleventh Circuit precedent only serve to highlight the dispositive point that the question was not beyond debate at the time Franks acted. Pp. 13–17.

3. The Eleventh Circuit declined to consider the District Court’s dismissal of the claims against respondent Burrow in her official capacity as CACC’s acting president, and the parties have not asked this Court to consider them here. The judgment of the Eleventh Circuit as to those claims is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings. P. 17.

523 Fed. Appx. 709, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded

Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion. Justice Thomas wrote a short concurrence that Justices Scalia and Alito concurred in, explaining that because Lane was not testifying as part of his job duties, the case was a straightforward application of Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006). Justice Thomas further wrote,

We accordingly have no occasion to address the quite different question whether a public employee speaks “as a citizen” when he testifies in the course of his ordinary job responsibilities. See ante, at 8, n. 4. For some public employees—such as police officers, crime scene technicians, and laboratory analysts—testifying is a routine and critical part of their employment duties. Others may be called to testify in the context of particular litigation as the designated representatives of their employers. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 30(b)(6). The Court properly leaves the constitutional questions raised by these scenarios for another day.

I'll admit that I'm a bit relieved by the decision, and I'm not alone--Paul expressed concern when cert was granted. The decision seemed to track my impressions from the oral argument, but that's not always the way it turns out, and the Court has not ruled in favor of public employees lately on this issue.

It will be interesting to see what the Eleventh Circuit does with the claims against the office of the President of the Community College on remand.

MM 

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Comments

For an optimistic view of Lane from the employee's side, check out Scott Oswald at http://employmentlawgroupblog.com/first-amendment-protection-start-comeback/

Posted by: Charlie | Jun 25, 2014 6:25:22 AM

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