Last year, I talked about a First Amendment retaliation case and noted the difficulties in defending against such claims. A new case out of the federal court in Connecticut last week highlights the those difficulties even further.
In Brown v. Waterbury Board of Ed. (download here), the Plaintiff, a custodian for the Waterbury Board of Education, had first brought suit in April 2005 alleging that his constitutional rights were violated when he was subject to false arrest and malicious prosecution back in 2002. (The criminal charges were later dismissed in 2004.) He sued two fire marshals for the City of Waterbury. The lawsuit proceeded to trial; on November 21, 2006, the jury rendered a verdict in the defendants’ favor.
The Plaintiff’s employment was terminated a few weeks later on December 7, 2006. He brought suit on a variety of grounds, including that he was terminated in retaliation for bringing the 2005 lawsuit in violation of the First Amendment. The District Court refused to grant Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, thus sending the issue to a possible trial.
In doing so, the court had to address two issues: 1) Was the employee’s "speech" on a "matter of public concern" and 2) Is there a "causal connection" between the speech and the termination.
The court said that here, the lawsuit raised sufficient allegations to be concerned a "matter of public concern" because it alleged that city officials "maliciously provided a prosecutor with false information to secure his arrest". Even though a jury found in the officials’ favor, the allegation is enough to state a claim.
As to the causal connection, this seemed to be a much easier call for the court. The court said that the timing of the end of the lawsuit and the termination could lead a "reasonable jury to find that the defendants intentionally waited to fire him until the 2005 lawsuit was over". Moreover, the Plaintiff alleged that during a meeting in which his release from work was discussed, a city official told him "[t]his is what happens when you file a lawsuit against the city".
(The case also addresses issues of disability discrimination as well, though it finds in favor of the Defendant. Readers should also note that the procedural posture of the case presumes certain facts to be true, when they may not be, and merely send the matter to a trial for a final determination.)
What must be frustrating to an employer here is the fact that the mere timing of the termination appeared to be enough for the court to send the matter to a jury trial. Thus, employers should take note and be cautious of termination decisions that could be linked (at least in an argument) to a underlying issue.
Retaliation claims and First Amendment claims (or the combination of the two) continue to be one area where courts are allowing such claims to proceed to trial. Employers should take great efforts to review termination decisions to ensure that the risk of such claims is kept to a minimum.