June 19, 2014

Breaking: SCOTUS Sides with Public Employee in Retaliation Case

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By Marlene Koury

This morning, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that public employees cannot be fired or retaliated against for testifying as concerned citizens about corruption.

The case involved a community college employee, Edward Lane, who was fired after testifying during a 2006 federal corruption trial that a state legislator was on the college’s payroll, despite doing no work.   Even though the legislator was convicted, the community college laid Lane off from his position as counselor to at-risk youth.  Lane sued the college president, alleging that the layoff was in retaliation for testifying in the federal case.

The Supreme Court relied on a 1968 case holding that when public employees speak as citizens on matters of public concern, rather than employees carrying out their duties, they are protected by the First Amendment.  And the Supreme Court distinguished a 2006 case in which it held that a deputy district attorney could be disciplined for testifying about misconduct because he had discovered the misconduct in carrying out his duties.

The Supreme Court noted that, here, Lane had been subpoenaed and had no choice but to testify and that his testimony centered on matters of public concern.  It also noted that the testimony did not involve matters he discovered in the course of his duties.  Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote the opinion, said that to rule against him “would place public employees who witness corruption in an impossible position, torn between the obligation to testify truthfully and the desire to avoid retaliation and keep their jobs.”

With today’s ruling, the Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment “protects a public employee who provided truthful sworn testimony, compelled by subpoena, outside the course of his ordinary job responsibilities.”

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