RICHMOND, Va. A federal appeals court yesterday reinstated a lawsuit filed by a South Carolina mechanic who was fired for displaying Confederate flag stickers on his toolbox. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the case never should have been removed from state court.
In its unanimous decision, the 13-member court said Matthew Dixon's lawsuit against Coburg Dairy Inc. in Charleston, S.C., did not raise a substantial question of federal law. The case, Dixon v. Coburg Dairy, hinges on a state law that makes it illegal to fire a person based on political opinions or the exercise of political rights guaranteed by the state or U.S. constitutions, the 4th Circuit said.
U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck had agreed with Coburg Dairy that the case centered on whether the company violated Dixon's First Amendment rights. Houck dismissed the lawsuit, and a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit upheld his ruling in a 2-1 decision in May 2003.
The full court reversed the panel's decision and returned the case to Houck with instructions to send it to the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas, where it originated. Coburg Dairy had petitioned to have the case moved to federal court.
"We finally got it back where we want it," said Dixon's attorney, Samuel W. Howell IV. "South Carolina is trying to protect civil liberties in the workplace. We see this as a victory for employees over big business."
Coburg Dairy attorney Tom Kilpatrick emphasized that the ruling was not a decision on the merits of the case, but just which court should hear it.
"We hope the state court will do the same thing the (lower) federal court did, which is dismiss the case," Kilpatrick said.
Judge Karen Williams wrote in yesterday's opinion that "although Dixon's complaint does reference the First Amendment, none of its causes of action rely exclusively on a First Amendment violation to establish Coburg's liability" under the state law.
A court could find that Dixon was illegally fired because of his political opinions or for exercising political rights guaranteed by the South Carolina Constitution, Williams wrote.
Coburg fired Dixon for refusing to use a different toolbox after a black co-worker complained. The dairy said Dixon violated its workplace harassment policy. Dixon claimed the company violated state employment laws and his free-speech rights.
Eight of her colleagues joined in Williams' opinion. Four others concurred in the judgment, including Judge Roger Gregory, who wrote last year's panel decision.
Gregory wrote separately that while he agreed with the outcome, he is concerned about the potential clash between the South Carolina statute and the federal anti-discrimination law.
"If indeed South Carolina has carved out this safe haven for the Confederate flag, such action threatens to undermine the federal protections that individuals possess to be free of discrimination in the workplace," Gregory wrote.
Gregory wrote that while many Southerners embrace the flag because of respect for their ancestors, to others the flag represents "support for slavery, belief in blacks as an inferior class, and opposition to the Republic."