A community college violated a program director’s First Amendment rights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, when it fired him after he testified during an investigation of corruption in the program. Lane v. Franks, et al, 573 U.S. ___, No. 13-483, slip op. (Jun. 19, 2014). The court held that the plaintiff did not give up his rights under the First Amendment when he accepted public employment. It remanded the plaintiff’s case against the community college to the trial court for further proceedings, but it affirmed the lower courts’ findings that the college president, named as an individual defendant, had limited immunity for acts performed in an official capacity. Despite this, the case is an important victory for whistleblowers in the government.
The plaintiff, Edward Lane, was hired in 2006 as the Director of Community Intensive Training for Youth (CITY), a statewide program run through Central Alabama Community College (CACC) to assist underprivileged youth. CITY was facing serious financial problems at the time, according to the court’s opinion, which prompted Lane to audit the program’s expenses. He discovered about $177,000 paid to Democrat state representative Sue Schmitz between February 2003 and October 2006, with little record of any actual work done by her. When Schmitz reportedly refused Lane’s demand to show up for work at CITY’s office in Huntsville, Lane fired her. This allegedly drew threats of retaliation from Schmidt and the attention of the FBI.
In November 2006, Lane testified to a federal grand jury, which later indicted Schmidt on multiple counts of mail fraud and theft. Lane testified under subpoena at her trial in August 2008. When the jury failed to reach a verdict, prosecutors tried Schmidt again, and Lane testified again. Schmidt was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. In January 2009, CACC President Steve Franks terminated 29 probationary CITY employees, including Lane, citing budget shortfalls. He then rescinded all but two of those terminations. Lane was one of the two who were not reinstated.
Lane filed suit against CACC and Franks in January 2011, claiming that his termination was in retaliation for his testimony against Schmidt. He alleged that this violated his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The lawsuit sought monetary damages, reinstatement to his position, and other equitable relief. The district court granted Franks’ motion for summary judgment, holding that Lane’s statements were not protected by the First Amendment because, rather than speaking as a citizen, he made the statements in the course of his official duties. Lane, slip op. at 5; Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 421 (2006). It also ruled that Franks had “qualified immunity in his personal capacity.” Lane, slip op. at 5. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the ruling.
The question before the Supreme Court was whether “truthful sworn testimony,” given by a public employee who was “compelled by subpoena,” and that was “outside the scope of his ordinary job responsibilities,” is entitled to First Amendment protection Id. at 8. The court held unanimously that it is. Under a two-part test established by Garcetti, it first found that Lane’s testimony constituted “speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern.” Id. It then found that CACC and Franks had no “adequate justification for treating [Lane] differently from any other member of the public.” Id. at 12 (internal quotations omitted). The court reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling with regard to Lane’s claims against CACC.
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