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Sunday, November 15, 2015

United States Courts (Ninth Circuit) on Public Employees and the First Amendment

In researching the right of a teacher (public employee) to claim he/she was a private citizen speaking out on a matter of public concern when blowing the whistle on an administrator, I found the following jury instructions in the Ninth Circuit:

9.9 Particular Rights—First Amendment—Public Employees—Speech
As previously explained, the plaintiff has the burden to prove that the act[s] of the defendant [name] deprived the plaintiff of particular rights under the United States Constitution. In this case, the plaintiff alleges the defendant deprived [him] [her] of [his] [her] rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution when [insert factual basis of the plaintiff's claim].
Under the FirstAmendment, a public employee has a qualified right to speak on matters of public concern. In order to prove the defendant deprived the plaintiff of this First Amendment right, the plaintiff must prove the following additional elements by a preponderance of the evidence:
1. the plaintiff spoke as a citizen and not as part of [his] [her] official duties;
2. the speech was on a matter of public concern;
3. the defendant took an adverse employment action against the plaintiff; and
4. the plaintiff’s speech was a substantial or motivating factor for the adverse employment action.
I instruct you that the plaintiff’s speech was on a matter of public concern, and, therefore, the second element requires no proof.
An action is an adverse employment action if a reasonable employee would have found the action materially adverse, which means it might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from engaging in protected activity.
A substantial or motivating factor is a significant factor.
Use this instruction only in conjunction with the applicable elements instruction, Instructions 9.2–9.7, and when the plaintiff is a public employee. Use Instruction 9.10 (Particular Rights—First Amendment—"Citizen" Plaintiff) when the plaintiff is a private citizen. Because this instruction is phrased in terms focusing the jury on the defendant’s liability for certain acts, the instruction should be modified to the extent liability is premised on a failure to act in order to avoid any risk of misstating the law. See Clem v. Lomeli, 566 F.3d 1177, 1181-82 (9th Cir. 2009).
As to whether a public employee’s speech is protected under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has "made clear that public employees do not surrender all their First Amendment rights by reason of their employment. Rather, the First Amendment protects a public employee’s right in certain circumstances to speak as a citizen addressing matters of public concern." Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 417 (2006); see also Borough of Duryea, Pa. v. Guarnieri, 131 S. Ct. 2488 (2011) (applying Garcetti public concern test to public employee’s First Amendment Petition Clause Claims).
In Gibson v. Office of Atty. Gen., State of California, 561 F.3d 920, 925 (9th Cir.2009), the Ninth Circuit reiterated the "sequential five-step series of questions" to consider when evaluating a public employee’s First Amendment retaliation claim:
Those questions are as follows: "(1) whether the plaintiff spoke on a matter of public concern; (2) whether the plaintiff spoke as a private citizen or public employee; (3) whether the plaintiff’s protected speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment action; (4) whether the state had an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from other members of the general public; and (5) whether the state would have taken the adverse employment action even absent the protected speech."
Id. (citing Eng v. Cooley, 552 F.3d 1062, 1070 (9th Cir.2009).)
Because this instruction only addresses the first three elements summarized in Eng, the instruction should be modified if there are jury issues involving the fourth or fifth factors stated above.
In Garcetti, a prosecutor brought a § 1983 action against his superiors and public employer, alleging that he was retaliated against because of a memorandum he wrote that challenged the veracity of a deputy sheriff’s affidavit used to procure a search warrant. The Supreme Court held the prosecutor could not establish a First Amendment violation because he prepared the memorandum as part of his official duties and not as a private citizen:
We hold 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. . . . Restricting speech that owes its existence to a public employee's professional responsibilities does not infringe any liberties the employee might have enjoyed as a private citizen. It simply reflects the exercise of employer control over what the employer itself has commissioned or created.
Id., 547 U.S. at 421-22. The Supreme Court, however, limited its ruling in two respects. First, in an explicit effort to avoid having its holding serve as an invitation for employers to restrict employees’ rights "by creating excessively broad job descriptions," the Court noted that "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.Id. at 425. Second, the Court recognized that "[t]here is some argument that expression related to academic scholarship or classroom instruction implicates additional constitutional interests that are not fully accounted for by the Court’s customary employee-speech jurisprudence. . ..[F]or that reason we do not decide whether the analysis we conduct today would apply in the same manner to a case involving speech related to scholarship or teaching." Id.
In Demers v. Austin, 2014 WL 306321 (9th Cir. Jan. 29, 2014), however, the Ninth Circuit answered the latter question and held that "Garcetti does not apply to "speech related to scholarship or teaching." Id. at * 1. Rather, such speech is governed by Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968). The Demers court went on to conclude that a state university professor’s accreditation plan for his department addressed a matter of public concern underPickering. Demers, 2014 WL 306321, at * 1.
Whether the plaintiff spoke as a public employee or a private citizen is a mixed question of fact and law. Posey v. Lake Pend Oreille School Dist. No. 84, 546 F.3d 1121, 1129 (9th Cir.2008). In particular, "the scope and content of a plaintiff's job responsibilities is a question of fact." Id. at 1130. In Dahlia v. Rodriguez, 735 F.3d 1060 (9th Cir.2013)(en banc), the Ninth Circuit overruled Huppert v. City of Pittsburg, 574 F.3d 696 (9th Cir.2009), and found that the district court had improperly relied on a generic job description and failed to conduct the practical, fact-specific inquiry required by Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 424. Dahlia, 735 F.3d at 1063. The Ninth Circuit also set forth guiding principles for performing the Garcetti inquiry in analogous cases. Id., at 1073-1076. See, e.g., Hagen v. City of Eugene, 736 F.3d 1251 (9th Cir.2013) (holding that public employee reporting departmental safety concerns pursuant to duty to so report did not speak as private citizen).
On the other hand, the "public concern inquiry is purely a question of law" Gibson, 561 F.3d at 925 (citing Eng, 552 F. 3d at 1070), that depends on the "content, form, and context of a given statement, as revealed by the whole record." Ulrich v. City and County of San Francisco, 308 F.3d 968, 976–77 (9th Cir.2002) (citations omitted).
The definition of "adverse employment action" in this instruction is substantially the same as that in Instruction 10.4A.1 (Civil Rights—Title VII—"Adverse Employment Action" in Retaliation Cases). See the Comment to that instruction for supporting authorities.
With respect to causation and whether "a final decision maker’s wholly independent, legitimate decision to terminate an employee [can] insulate from liability a lower-level supervisor involved in the process who had a retaliatory motive to have the employee fired" when, as a matter of causation, the termination decision was not shown to be influenced by the subordinate’s retaliatory motives, see Lakeside-Scott v. Multnomah County, 556 F.3d 797, 799 (9th Cir.2009).
Approved 4/2014 

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