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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Lane v. Franks: Supreme Court Rules on Public Employee's First Amendment Claim

In Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U. S. 410 (2006), the Supreme Court of the United States held that "when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline." Id., at 421. Applying that rule to the facts before it, the Court found that an internal memorandum prepared by a prosecutor in the course of his ordinary job responsibilities constituted unprotected speech, and the employee could not sue his employer for alleged retaliation and violation of his Frist Amendment rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id., at 424.

In Lane v. Franks, ___ U.S. ___ (6/19/14), plaintiff Edward Lane alleged that his former employer, a public entity, terminated him in retaliation for having testified in court regarding the alleged misconduct of another employee. Lane sued under section 1983 for violation of his First Amendment rights, naming his former supervisor, Franks, in his individual capacity and his former employer's acting president, Burrow, in her official capacity.

The Supreme Court held that Lane's testimony in court was speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern and thus was protected by the First Amendment. Slip op. at 8-12. Further, the Court held that the defendants had failed to show that the government had "an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from any other member of the public" based on the government's needs as an employer. Slip op. at 12-13. Accordingly, Lane could pursue a section 1983 action against both Franks and Burrows for violation of his First Amendment rights.

The Court next considered whether Lane's action against Franks, in his individual capacity, should be dismissed on the basis of qualified immunity. The Court held that Franks was entitled to qualified immunity because he reasonably could have believed, at the time that he fired Lane, that a government employer could fire an employee on account of testimony the employee gave, under oath and outside the scope of his ordinary job responsibilities. Slip op. at 13-17.

Lane v. Franks is available here.

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