573 U.S. 228 (2014).

One-Sentence Takeaway: Truthful testimony under oath by a public employee outside the scope of his ordinary job duties is speech as a citizen for First Amendment purposes and that is so even when the testimony relates to his public employment or concerns information learned during that employment.

Summary: A public employee plaintiff, Edward Lane (“Lane”), brought a cause of action against his former supervisor, Steve Franks (“Franks”) in his individual and official capacities, alleging that Franks violated the First Amendment by terminating Lane’s position in retaliation for Lane’s testimony against a former employee in a criminal case.

Lane had worked as a director for statewide program and in that capacity, he uncovered that an employee on the program’s payroll had not been reporting to the program’s office.  The former employee was subsequently investigated by the FBI and criminal charges were brought against the former employee.  Lane testified before a federal grand jury and during the criminal trial about his reasoning for firing the former employee.  Subsequently, the entire statewide program was eliminated and Lane was terminated.

In Lane’s First Amendment retaliation claim, the District Court granted Frank’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the claims against Franks in his individual capacity were barred by qualified immunity and the official-capacity claims were barred by the Eleventh Amendment.  The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that Lane could not state such claim because the speech in question was not made “as a citizen” because it involved information learned during the course of his employment.

The Supreme Court of the United States reversed as to the official-capacity claims, but affirmed as to the individual-capacity claims.

The Court started by explaining the framework established in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006) for determining whether a public employee may state a First Amendment retaliation claim applied to a public employee who was allegedly terminated based on testimony he gave at a judicial proceeding.  Under that framework, a court must first decide whether the statements in question constitute speech “as a citizen,” or whether they were made pursuant to an employee’s “official duties.”  Next, the court must assess whether the speech raises a “matter of public concern.”  Finally, the court must ask whether “the government had ‘an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from any other member of the public’ based on the government’s needs as an employer.”

On the first issue, the Court began its analysis with a recitation of Lane’s specific job responsibilities as “overseeing … day-to-day operations, hiring and firing employees, and making decisions with respect to the program’s finances.”  The Court determined that the speech at issue – Lane’s testimony relating to his termination of an employee, who was also a State representative, because she rarely, if ever, came to work – constituted speech as a citizen for First Amendment purposes even though it was information he learned during his employment.  The Court explained, “[t]he critical question under Garcetti is whether the speech at issue is itself ordinarily within the scope of an employee’s duties, not whether it merely concerns those duties.”  The Court held that, “[s]worn testimony in judicial proceedings is a quintessential example of speech as a citizen for a simple reason: Anyone who testifies in court bears an obligation, to the court and society at large, to tell the truth.”

The court held that, “[t]ruthful testimony under oath by a public employee outside the scope of his ordinary job duties is speech as a citizen for First Amendment purposes. That is so even when the testimony relates to his public employment or concerns information learned during that employment.”

The Court also determined that the speech at issue raised a “matter of public concern.”  The Court emphasized that Lane’s speech exposed public corruption: “The importance of public employee speech is especially evident in the context of this case: a public corruption scandal. … It would be antithetical to our jurisprudence to conclude that the very kind of speech necessary to prosecute corruption by public officials – speech by public employees regarding information learned through their employment – may never form the basis for a First Amendment retaliation claim. Such a rule would place public employees who witness corruption in an impossible position, torn between the obligation to testify truthfully and the desire to avoid retaliation and keep their jobs.”

On the third issue of the framework, the Court determined that Franks failed to establish that there was an “adequate justification for treating [Lane’s] speech differently fro any other member of the public based on the government’s needs as an employer.”  The Court explained that, “[t]here [was] no evidence, for example, that Lane’s testimony at [former employee’s] trials was false or erroneous or that Lane unnecessarily disclosed any sensitive, confidential, or privileged information while testifying.  In these circumstances, we conclude that Lane’s speech is entitled to protection under the First Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit erred in holding otherwise and dismissing Lane’s claim of retaliation on that basis.”

However, for Lane’s claim against Franks in latter’s individual capacity, the Court found that “Franks [was] entitled to qualified immunity” because “[a]t the time of Lane’s termination, Eleventh Circuit precedent did not provide clear notice that subpoenaed testimony concerning information acquired through public employment is speech of a citizen entitled to First Amendment protection.”  The Court emphasized that “courts may not award damages against a government official in his personal capacity unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and the right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.”

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