Lane v. Franks First Amendment Protections for Public Employees Clarified

The Garcetti Test Challenged

Fifty years after first addressing the issue of freedom of speech in the context of public employment (Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968)), the Supreme Court of the United States reiterated that citizens do not surrender their First Amendment rights when they accept public employment. Rather, the Court found that the exclusion of First Amendment protections announced in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006) for all speech of public employees based on information learned as a result of public employment was narrowed to apply only to speech required as part of a public employee’s official duties.

In Lane v. Franks, 134 S.Ct. 2369 (2014), a unanimous Court determined that speech that was issued by a citizen addressing a public matter was protected under the First Amendment when the person was not offering the testimony as part of his or her employment responsibilities. Edward Lane was the director of Central Alabama Community College’s (“CCAC”) statewide Community Intensive Training for Youth (“CITY”) program. He conducted an audit and discovered that then state representative Suzanne Schmitz was on CCAC’s payroll, but was not reporting to work. Lane terminated Schmitz for failure to report to work. Shortly after the termination, Schmitz was indicted on various federal charges relating to corruption and misuse of state funds. Lane was subpoenaed to testify in the case against her about the termination. Schmitz was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison.

During this time, the CITY program was experiencing financial hardship. Steve Franks, CCAC’s president, fired Lane and 28 other employees, supposedly to address budget shortfalls in the program. However, days later all but two of the employees were hired back. Lane and one other employee remained terminated.

Lane filed a lawsuit against Franks in both his individual and official capacities, claiming that the termination constituted a violation of his First Amendment protections. He sought damages and reinstatement. The District Court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Franks on his motions for summary judgment. Both courts found that Lane had acted within his official capacity as director of the CITY program when he fired Schmitz and testified against her in court. Therefore, according to Garcetti, as a public employee acting within the scope of his employment, he could not claim First Amendment protection.

A Balancing Test Emerges

The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit with respect to Lane’s claim against Frank in his official capacity as president of CCAC (he has since retired and the claim will be directed against the current president). In doing so, the Court stated that Lane had testified at Schmitz’s trial as a citizen on a matter of public concern, rather than acting in his official role as director of the CITY program. Furthermore, sworn testimony at trial is a “quintessential example of citizen speech for the simple reason that anyone who testifies in court bears an obligation, to the court and to society at large, to tell the truth.” Subpoenaed testimony, therefore, is the duty of a citizen, not an employee, and should not be characterized as an action within an employee’s official capacity. In fact, a citizen’s obligation to tell the truth is “distinct and independent from any separate obligations a testifying employee might have to his employer.”

The Court declined to adopt a bright line rule for protected speech of public employees, and instead formulated a balancing test. The test is predicated on weighing the interest of the employee as a citizen in commenting on matters of public concern with the interest of the government as an employer in promoting efficiency of the public services it performs and provides through its employees.

The Court affirmed the Eleventh Circuit’s grant of summary judgment on Lane’s claim against Franks in his individual capacity, but accepted Franks’ assertion of qualified immunity based on the fact that the law was not clearly established. The claim against Franks in his official capacity was remanded to the lower court for Lane to pursue the relief sought, which was a demand for back pay and reinstatement.

Going Forward

The Lane case narrows the Garcetti exclusion of First Amendment protection to public employee speech to only that speech that is a required and official part of the employee’s job. This clarification was long overdue and will offer more protection for whistleblowers who face retaliatory discharge: See blog on Thomas v. County of Riverside, 763 F.3d 1167 (2014).

If you have been adversely affected in your employment after exercising your protected First Amendment rights, contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group to discuss what happened and learn about how we might be able to help. We practice in Orange County, Riverside, and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020 today to schedule an appointment.