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Federal appeals panel upholds jury award in retaliation case

By David Hudson
The Freedom Forum Online
10.10.00

A federal appeals court panel has unanimously affirmed a jury verdict in favor of a former Eldon, Mo., city clerk who alleged that city aldermen fired her in retaliation for speaking about possible misconduct by the former city administrator.

Laverne Belk, who began working as a city clerk in 1982, also served as assistant to ex-city administrator James Link, receiving favorable job ratings in that capacity.

In 1995, Belk saw a bill for heath insurance that she believed showed that city employee Debra Carpenter was receiving benefits inappropriate to her employment status. Belk sent Link a memo regarding these benefits, but Link disregarded her complaints.

In October 1995, Belk complained in private to then-city alderman Harold Dolby about rumors of an extramarital affair between Link and Carpenter. Belk also complained that Carpenter was receiving benefits inappropriate to her employment status.

One month later Link fired Belk from her position as assistant city administrator. In April 1996, the board of aldermen also removed Belk from her city clerk position.

Belk sued the city and four aldermen in federal court, contending that city officials had fired her in retaliation for her speech to Dolby about Link and Carpenter and that she also had suffered sex discrimination.

A jury ruled in favor of Belk on her First Amendment claim but rejected the sex- discrimination claim.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Belk v. City of Eldon affirmed the jury award.

The appeals court analyzed Belk's First Amendment retaliation suit under a test first articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1969 decision Pickering v. Board of Educ.

To receive First Amendment protection under this test, it was necessary that Belk's speech touch on a matter of public concern and that her free-speech interests trump her employer's interests in efficiency.

The defendants argued that Belk could receive no First Amendment protection because she did not speak on a matter of public concern for several reasons, including:

Belk's statements to Dolby were made in a private setting.

Belk was motivated by a desire to spread gossip and animosity toward Link.

Belk's statements were "purely job-related."

The panel determined that Belk's speech did touch on matters of public concern. "Allegations of the misuse of public funds relate directly to citizens' interests as taxpayers," the panel wrote in its Oct. 2 opinion. "Speech that criticizes a public employer in his capacity as a public official also addresses matters of public concern."

The panel determined that Belk's comments "implicated her interests as a citizen-taxpayer by alleging the misuse of public funds." The panel also rejected the argument that Belk's speech had to be made in a public setting in order to be considered as related to a matter of public concern.

The appeals court also rejected the defendants' argument that the city's efficiency interests trumped Belk's free-speech interests. The appeals court determined, in fact, that the city defendants "failed to demonstrate sufficient evidence of workplace disruption."

The defendants had argued that the jury verdict should be overturned because they were entitled to qualified immunity, not having violated any of Belk's clearly established constitutional rights.

The appeals court panel rejected the qualified-immunity defense, writing: "As early as 1985, the Supreme Court had found a clear First Amendment protection for public employees."

Calls to the attorneys on both sides of the case were not returned.


Related

Federal appeals court reinstates public employee's retaliation claim

Judges determine that jury could infer from evidence that Arkansas state employee was discharged for reporting misconduct by superior. 10.25.00

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