CONCORD, N.H. — The state Supreme Court agrees that the city of Claremont violated former City Assessor Steven Snelling’s rights when it fired him seven years ago, in a ruling his lawyer says upholds the rights of public employees in New Hampshire to speak out on important issues.
Snelling was fired in 2000, in part because of comments he made in a newspaper article in which he criticized the city’s tax system and said certain city councilors were taking unfair, but not illegal, advantage of tax abatements.
Ruling July 18 in Snelling v. Claremont, the court upheld Snelling’s wrongful termination victory and a jury award of more than $350,000, but sent the issue of awarding future lost wages back to the Superior Court for trial. The high court also said it would wait to rule on another portion of the original jury award.
Snelling’s lawyer, Jon Meyer, said the ruling upholds important First Amendment rights for public employees.
“The underlying thrust of this case is that a public employee does have the right to communicate with the press on matters of public importance, even when what he is saying is going to cause a lack of confidence or lack of trust in his superiors,” Meyer said.
Meyer said a key test was whether Snelling spoke out as a city employee or a private citizen. The argument was based on a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Garcetti v. Ceballos, that said free-speech protections only apply when a public employee speaks as a citizen, not as an employee.
The city argued Snelling spoke with the Claremont Eagle Times in his official duties, so his comments were not protected from discipline.
But the justices said Garcetti did not apply, because they found Snelling offered opinions as a citizen, just as other citizens quoted in the article.
“While communication with the public about the office’s procedures and techniques would fall within his duties, comments about the fairness of the tax system, or that identify potential abuses of that system, do not fall within his duties as described,” the court ruled.
The high court further found Snelling’s comments were protected because they were on a matter of public concern and did not cause any disruption.
Meyer said there has been some effort to use Garcetti, “to trump public-employee speech on a national level, so this opinion is important, not only in New Hampshire, but nationally.”
Snelling won a wrongful termination lawsuit in Superior Court, which awarded him $151,000 in past wages and benefits, $50,000 for mental and emotional distress, $151,200 in enhanced compensatory damages, and $3,780 in punitive damages.
The jury awarded nothing on Snelling’s claim for future lost wages and benefits, and the high court sent that issue back to a lower court for trial on that issue. It said the city lawyer improperly and needlessly told the jury that any such award would come from taxpayers and influenced the jury decision.
It deferred ruling on whether the enhanced damages should have included the $1,200 that exceeded a $150,000 cap, pending a determination on whether insurance would pay the damages.