Eleventh Circuit Decision in Retaliation Case Could Affect Georgia Employees

In order to establish liability in an Atlanta wrongful termination case based on retaliation, the employee must be able to show that he or she engaged in protected activity, that he or she suffered an adverse employment action, and that there was a causal relationship between the protected activity and the adverse action.

In a recent case, a public employee alleged that he had been fired for making statements that were protected by the First Amendment. The city that previously employed the plaintiff in that case disagreed, however, asserting that the statements in questions were made in the employee’s professional – not personal – capacity. While there are some situations in which an employee’s termination for speech made during the course of his or her employee might be considered unlawful, both the district court and the appellate court agreed that such was not the case.

Factual Allegations

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (the same circuit that hears appeals from federal district courts in Georgia) recently decided a case involving allegations that a city employee (a former fire chief) had been retaliated against after he attempted to enforce fire safety rules at an historic building owned by persons with political connections to city government. In the suit, the plaintiff sought relief under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as a state whistleblower statute. The plaintiff initially filed his lawsuit in state court, but it was removed to federal court by the defendant city.

The federal district court granted summary judgment to the defendant, and the plaintiff appealed. The plaintiff urged the appellate tribunal to reverse the lower court’s order, arguing that it had been error for the district court to hold that the speech for which he was allegedly discharged occurred during a time that he was acting as a city employee rather as a private citizen.

Determination of the Issues

The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s order granting summary judgment to the defendant. The court began its analysis by acknowledging that, generally speaking, a public employer such as the defendant could not retaliate against a public employee for speech that was protected by the First Amendment and that the United States Supreme Court has previously recognized that there is a need to strike a balance between the interests of the employee in commenting on matters of public concern and the employer’s need to promote efficiency of public services. The first inquiry in addressing whether an employer has acted wrongfully is whether an employee who has allegedly been the victim of retaliation was speaking “as a citizen on a matter of public concern.” Only if the answer is in the affirmative does a First Amendment claim potentially lie against the defendant governmental entity.

Here, the court of appeals agreed with the federal district court that the speech in question arose from the plaintiff’s professional responsibilities. Because the plaintiff spoke in his official job duties and the purpose of his speech was work-related, the appellate court found that speech in question was in the realm of employment-related speech. Under the circumstances, the plaintiff’s speech was not protected by the First Amendment, and the defendant was entitled to summary judgment on this claim.

To Speak to a Legal Professional About Your Workplace Situation

Cases in which an employee attempts to assert his or her legal rights against a current, former, or potential employer are not easy. Success in such cases requires not only knowledge of the applicable law but also a great deal of time, skill, and perseverance. If you believe that you have a claim against your employer for unlawful retaliation or other misconduct, you should talk to an Atlanta employment lawyer as soon as possible. Deadlines are very important in these types of cases, and failure to take action within the requisite amount of time can be fatal to what might otherwise have been a successful case. To schedule an appointment to discuss your situation, call the attorneys of Parks, Chesin & Walbert now at 877-986-5529. Someone is always available to take your call, so there is no reason to delay.