Three former Mississippi jailers fired after reporting the beating of an inmate by another guard have had their First Amendment retaliation claims reinstated by a federal appeals court.
The April 25 decision in Williams v. Riley could have an effect on other cases because it addresses the issue of when employees’ speech is made as part of official job duties and how such determinations are made.
The question is important for public employees nationwide after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, in which the justices ruled 5-4 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.”
The Garcetti decision has led to the dismissal of many a public-employee First Amendment claim, as employers successfully argue that employees’ speech was simply part of doing their job.
Tammy Williams, Earl Russell and Cheryl Hambrick found this out after they filed their lawsuit. The case began in December 2004 when Williams and Hambrick witnessed a jailer beating an inmate at the DeSoto County Jail. They reported the incident to their supervisor, deputy sheriff Russell. Williams and Russell later contacted another superior and were told to write a report about the abuse incident. Hambrick wrote a report. The next day Hambrick, Williams and Russell were informed of misconduct charges, given a hearing and fired.
They filed a lawsuit in April 2005 against Sheriff James A. Riley, asserting a variety of claims. One claim was that officials retaliated against them for the exercise of their First Amendment rights.
In May 2006, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Garcetti. The sheriff and the other defendants then argued that the fired jailers’ First Amendment claims must be dismissed because their allegations were part of their official job duties to report abuse of inmates.
The defendants relied on the employer’s stated policy of the jailers’ job description, which included reporting unlawful activity by other officers. In March 2007, U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper Jr. granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims based on Garcetti.
“Despite plaintiff counsel’s best efforts, the import of this holding [in Garcetti] to the alleged facts in this case is impossible to circumvent since it is undisputed that part of the plaintiffs’ official duty description includes reporting unlawful activity of other officers,” Pepper wrote.
Pepper also wrote that he was “gravely troubled by the effect of Garcetti,” noting that “it allows no federal constitutional recourse for an employee of the State of Mississippi who is fired for reporting a fellow government employee’s misconduct.”
However, on appeal a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the First Amendment retaliation claim in last month’s opinion in Williams v. Riley. The appeals court held that “it is error to rely solely upon an employer’s written policy in determining official duties.” In its per curiam opinion, the panel quoted from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Garcetti:
“Formal job descriptions often bear little resemblance to the duties an employee actually is expected to perform, and the listing of a given task in an employee’s written job description is neither necessary nor sufficient to demonstrate that conducting the task is within the scope of the employee’s professional duties for First Amendment purposes.”
The 5th Circuit added that there were questions of fact as to whether plaintiffs were required or expected to report such instances of abuse. The panel also said the plaintiffs could file another amended complaint to clarify their claims that their speech about inmate abuse was not made pursuant to their official job duties.
The case carries potential significance in the area of public employee First Amendment jurisprudence for at least two reasons. First, it shows that lower courts take seriously Justice Kennedy’s admonition that “official job duties” are not exclusively determined by job descriptions or policies. Second, it requires courts to focus on the practical realities of the workplace and employee duties, as opposed to employers’ recitations of Garcetti.