Employee Failed to State Valid First Amendment Claim Because she was Speaking Pursuant to her Official Duties

A former school payroll employee reported incidences of fiscal irregularities to the superintendent, and later reported the same concerns to an outside consultant. Thereafter, she was suspended when it was discovered she falsified her employment application. In response, the employee wrote a personal letter to individual board members expressing frustration with how the superintendent responded to fiscal concerns, and that her suspension was in retaliation for reporting fiscal malfeasance. The superintendent recommended the employee’s termination, which the board approved, and the termination was later made official following a disciplinary hearing.

The employee then filed a First Amendment retaliation claim against the superintendent. The District Court held the former payroll clerk, a public employee, could proceed to trial on the claim that the superintendent violated her right to freedom of speech. The superintendent appealed, alleging he was entitled to qualified immunity which shields government officials performing “discretionary functions” from liability insofar as their conduct did not violate a clearly established right. On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals assessed the employee’s official duties and the nature of her speech to determine whether she was speaking as a private citizen. The Court ultimately held that the employee’s complaints, specifically directed to the superintendent, the consultant and to board members, were made pursuant to her job duties, and therefore, she was not protected by the First Amendment since she never communicated her complaints to the public. This case demonstrates the scope of First Amendment protection in the context of public employment.      

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