Lane v. Franks
573 US ___ (2014)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Lane, Director of CITY, a program for underprivileged youth operated by Central Alabama Community College (CACC), discovered that Schmitz, a state representative on CITY’s payroll, had not been reporting for work. Lane terminated her employment. Federal authorities later indicted Schmitz on charges of mail fraud and theft concerning a program receiving federal funds. Lane testified, under subpoena, regarding the events that led to Schmitz’s termination. Schmitz was convicted. Meanwhile, CITY experienced significant budget shortfalls. CACC’s president, Franks, terminated Lane and 28 others, citing those shortfalls. Franks rescinded all but two (Lane and another) of the terminations days later. Lane sued Franks in his individual and official capacities under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging retaliation for testifying against Schmitz. The district court granted Franks summary judgment, finding the individual-capacity claims were barred by qualified immunity and the official-capacity claims barred by the Eleventh Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, reasoning that Lane acted pursuant to his official duties when he investigated and terminated Schmitz. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed in part, first holding that Lane’s sworn testimony outside the scope of his ordinary job duties was protected by the First Amendment. Lane’s testimony was speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern. The critical question is whether the speech at issue is itself ordinarily within the scope of an employee’s duties, not whether it merely concerns those duties. Corruption in a public program and misuse of state funds involve matters of significant public concern; the form and context of the speech, sworn testimony in a judicial proceeding, fortify that conclusion. There is no government interest that favors Franks: there was no evidence that Lane’s testimony was false or erroneous or that Lane unnecessarily disclosed confidential information. Franks is entitled to qualified immunity in his individual capacity. Based on existing Eleventh Circuit precedent, Franks reasonably could have believed that a government employer could fire an employee because of testimony given outside the scope of his ordinary job responsibilities.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

LANE v. FRANKS et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit

No. 13–483. Argued April 28, 2014—Decided June 19, 2014

As Director of Community Intensive Training for Youth (CITY), a program for underprivileged youth operated by Central Alabama Community College (CACC), petitioner Edward Lane conducted an audit of the program’s expenses and discovered that Suzanne Schmitz, an Alabama State Representative on CITY’s payroll, had not been reporting for work. Lane eventually terminated Schmitz’ employment. Shortly thereafter, federal authorities indicted Schmitz on charges of mail fraud and theft concerning a program receiving federal funds. Lane testified, under subpoena, regarding the events that led to his terminating Schmitz. Schmitz was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Meanwhile, CITY was experiencing significant budget shortfalls. Respondent Franks, then CACC’s president, terminated Lane along with 28 other employees in a claimed effort to address the financial difficulties. A few days later, however, Franks rescinded all but 2 of the 29 terminations—those of Lane and one other employee. Lane sued Franks in his individual and official capacities under 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging that Franks had violated the First Amendment by firing him in retaliation for testifying against Schmitz.

          The District Court granted Franks’ motion for summary judgment, holding that the individual-capacity claims were barred by qualified immunity and the official-capacity claims were barred by the Eleventh Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that Lane’s testimony was not entitled to First Amendment protection. It reasoned that Lane spoke as an employee and not as a citizen because he acted pursuant to his official duties when he investigated and terminated Schmitz’ employment.

Held: 

     1. Lane’s sworn testimony outside the scope of his ordinary job duties is entitled to First Amendment protection. Pp. 6–13.

          (a) Pickering v. Board of Ed. of Township High School Dist. 205, Will Cty., 391 U. S. 563 , requires balancing “the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.” Under the first step of the Pickering analysis, if the speech is made pursuant to the employee’s ordinary job duties, then the employee is not speaking as a citizen for First Amendment purposes, and the inquiry ends. Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U. S. 410 . But if the “employee spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern,” the inquiry turns to “whether the relevant government entity had an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from any other member of the general public.” Id., at 418. Pp. 6–8.

          (b) Lane’s testimony is speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern. Pp. 8–12.

               (1) Sworn testimony in judicial proceedings is a quintessential example of citizen speech for the simple reason that anyone who testifies in court bears an obligation, to the court and society at large, to tell the truth. That obligation is distinct and independent from any separate obligations a testifying public employee might have to his employer. The Eleventh Circuit read Garcetti far too broadly in holding that Lane did not speak as a citizen when he testified simply because he learned of the subject matter of that testimony in the course of his employment. Garcetti said nothing about speech that relates to public employment or concerns information learned in the course of that employment. The 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. Indeed, speech by public employees on subject matter related to their employment holds special value precisely because those employees gain knowledge of matters of public concern through their employment. Pp. 9–11.

               (2) Whether speech is a matter of public concern turns on the “content, form, and context” of the speech. Connick v. Myers, 461 U. S. 138 –148. Here, corruption in a public program and misuse of state funds obviously involve matters of significant public concern. See Garcetti, 547 U. S., at 425. And the form and context of the speech—sworn testimony in a judicial proceeding—fortify that conclusion. See United States v. Alvarez, 567 U. S. ___, ___. Pp. 11–12.

          (c) Turning to Pickering’s second step, the employer’s side of the scale is entirely empty. Respondents do not assert, and cannot demonstrate, any government interest that tips the balance in their favor—for instance, evidence that Lane’s testimony was false or erro-neous or that Lane unnecessarily disclosed sensitive, confidential, or privileged information while testifying. Pp. 12–13.

     2. Franks is entitled to qualified immunity for the claims against him in his individual capacity. The question here is whether Franks reasonably could have believed that, when he fired Lane, a government employer could fire an employee because of testimony the employee gave, under oath and outside the scope of his ordinary job responsibilities. See Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U. S. ___, ___. At the relevant time, Eleventh Circuit precedent did not preclude Franks from holding that belief, and no decision of this Court was sufficiently clear to cast doubt on controlling Circuit precedent. Any discrepancies in Eleventh Circuit precedent only serve to highlight the dispositive point that the question was not beyond debate at the time Franks acted. Pp. 13–17.

     3. The Eleventh Circuit declined to consider the District Court’s dismissal of the claims against respondent Burrow in her official capacity as CACC’s acting president, and the parties have not asked this Court to consider them here. The judgment of the Eleventh Circuit as to those claims is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings. P. 17.

523 Fed. Appx. 709, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

     Sotomayor, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Thomas, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Scalia and Alito, JJ., joined.

Primary Holding

Speech by a citizen on a matter of public concern is protected by the First Amendment if it falls outside the scope of the speaker's ordinary job duties, even if it is sworn testimony on matters related to the job.

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