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FMG Law Blog Line

Posts Tagged ‘Civil Rights’

Supreme Court Revisits Interplay Between First and Fourth Amendments

Posted on: November 29th, 2018

By: Wes Jackson

Imagine you commit a minor crime and an officer approaches you. The interaction goes south when you call the officer a “pig” and remind him that your tax dollars pay his salary. He then arrests you. Were your constitutional rights violated?

That’s the question the Supreme Court considered Monday, November 26, 2018 when it heard oral arguments in Nieves v. Bartlett. In Nieves, two Alaska State Troopers were patrolling a multi-day ski and snowmobile festival when they decided to investigate some underage drinking. Bartlett, who was intoxicated, intervened and confronted the troopers. The officers arrested Bartlett and put him in a “drunk tank.” He was later released and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The state declined to prosecute the charges due to budgetary reasons. Bartlett sued, alleging his arrest was retaliatory because he refused to assist the officers in their investigation of the minors drinking alcohol.

Retaliatory arrest claims, like the one in Nieves, occur at the intersection of the First and Fourth Amendments: the presence of probable cause bars a Fourth Amendment claim for false arrest, but the circuits are split as to whether probable cause will also bar a First Amendment claim for retaliatory arrest arising from the same incident. Those circuits applying the probable cause bar to retaliatory arrest claims employ a bright-line objective standard that protects the officer from protracted litigation or trial where it is clear (or even arguable) that a reasonable officer could believe the arrestee had committed a crime. Rejecting the probable cause bar to retaliatory arrest claims could subject officers to months or years of litigation probing their subjective intent behind making an arrest—i.e., did the officer arrest the plaintiff for his crime or his speech?

At the Nieves oral argument, the justices sought to find a balance between protecting First Amendment rights while also giving law enforcement officers enough cover to act decisively and make arrests in fast-paced situations. On one hand, Justice Kagan noted the concern that officers might use minor crimes as a pretext to arrest for speech they disagree with, stating “there are so many laws that people can break that police officers generally look the other way, but, you know, you’re saying something that the officer doesn’t much like, so he doesn’t look the other way.” On the other hand, Justice Breyer and other justices noted the obvious concern with the chilling effect that would accompany the possibility of officers being haled into court every time they arrest someone who hurls an insult—officers could be to hesitant to make otherwise appropriate arrests.

One possible solution the justices entertained was to keep the probable cause bar for retaliatory arrests, but to limit its application to situations where there was probable cause for the charge on which the officer made the arrest or other charges upon which the arrestee was soon indicted. Such a solution would keep the probable cause bar for retaliatory arrests but prevent officers from concocting post hoc justifications for the arrest months or years later in a civil rights lawsuit.

The Court should issue an opinion in Nieves v. Bartlett in the coming months. If you have any questions about this case or retaliatory arrest claims more generally, please contact Wes Jackson at [email protected].

Qualified Immunity Applied to Employment

Posted on: October 3rd, 2018

By: Owen Rooney

In Kramer v. Cullinan 878 F.3d 1156 (9th Cir., 2018) the Ninth Circuit reversed the denial of a Motion for Summary Judgment, holding that that the employer’s public statement was not “stigmatizing” and defendant was entitled to qualified immunity.

Plaintiff served in dual roles as Executive Director of Public Radio and a related Foundation. He reported to Southern Oregon University President Cullinan who became concerned that plaintiff was engaged in costly projects and a potential conflict of interest existed in plaintiff serving in both capacities. The University system conducted an asset liability investigation which concluded that the projects could cause a financial strain on the university and that the projects were not aligned with the university’s interests. Plaintiff resisted the university’s efforts to remove him from both roles by trying to have the Board pass resolutions to keep him in both positions. The university president sought advice of counsel who authored a letter urging the Foundation not to adopt plaintiff’s resolutions and also raising the potential liability of plaintiff and the Directors. The letter was given to the Board members prior to voting on plaintiff’s resolutions, a meeting at which the press was present.  At the meeting, President Cullinan spoke, again raising the issue of possible legal liability, but expressing hope for an amicable resolution.

Thereafter, plaintiff’s annual appointment was not renewed. Following the grievance procedure, plaintiff filed suit, alleging, among other things, a civil rights violations for deprivation of his liberty without due process. The District Court granted summary judgment as to all claims except the civil rights cause of action. In reversing, the Ninth Circuit held that the letter did not actually impute bad faith, willful or wasteful conduct. Rather, the letter in question stated that “if” plaintiff had engaged in bad faith, willful or wasteful conduct, he would not be entitled to indemnity.

Secondly, the Court recognized that an employer’s statement about an employee may implicate a liberty interest. Thus, an employee charged with fraud, dishonesty or immoral conduct is entitled to a name-clearing hearing under the 14th Amendment. The Court also held that prior legal precedent was not sufficient to put the university president on notice that her conduct violated plaintiff’s constitutional rights because the prior cases did not involve the conditional language at issue here.

The take away is that qualified immunity is still alive in the Ninth Circuit and is applicable in an employment context.

If you have any questions or would like more information please contact Owen Rooney at [email protected].

Farmworker Union Sues to Overturn NC Law That Nixes Dues Checkoff and Voids Agreements Requiring Farmers to Sign Union Contracts

Posted on: November 20th, 2017

By: Paul H. Derrick

For years, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a small Ohio-based union that is the only labor organization representing farmworkers in the State of North Carolina, has used actual and threatened lawsuits as a means of getting farmers in the state to voluntarily recognize and bargain with it. The state’s Farm Act of 2017 contains provisions aimed at stopping that coercive tactic, and FLOC is making good on its promise to fight back.

The Farm Act makes it a violation of the state’s public policy for farms, most of which are small, family-owned operations, to collect membership dues from employees and forward them along to a union, even if the union and the farm have executed a collective bargaining agreement that requires such dues collection. The law also makes it a violation of public policy for a union to require that a farm enter into a union contract as a means of settling a lawsuit or avoiding litigation in the first place.

Represented by civil rights lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the North Carolina Justice Center, the union and two individual migrant farmworkers, both of whom previously brought legal actions against their non-union employers, have filed a lawsuit in federal court against Governor Roy Cooper and the director of the North Carolina court system. The lawsuit claims that the Farm Act impedes their First Amendment right to participate in union activity and is racially discriminatory (i.e., because most of the state’s farmworkers are Latino). It demands that the court declare portions of the Farm Act to be unconstitutional and also asks that preliminary and permanent injunctions be entered to restrain state officials from enforcing those provisions of the law.

North Carolina farmers employ about 100,000 workers annually, and FLOC claims to have almost 5,000 dues-paying members among that workforce. Because there are no federal or North Carolina laws that give agricultural workers a right to demand a union election, FLOC insists that the only way it can organize workers is by actual or threatened lawsuits over issues such as alleged wage and hour violations, where part of the settlement demanded includes farmers voluntarily recognizing the union as the bargaining representative of their employees and collecting dues from the workers on behalf of the union.

A copy of FLOC’s lawsuit can be found here. We will continue to keep you apprised of developments in this area as they occur. In the meantime, if you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Paul Derrick at [email protected].

Qualified Immunity and The First Amendment – Why Plaintiffs Continue To Struggle Proving “Clearly Established Case Law”

Posted on: October 3rd, 2017

By: Bradley T. Adler and Will Collins

The recent Eleventh Circuit decision Gaines v. Wardynski, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 18276, No. 16-15583 (11th Cir. Sept. 21, 2017), is a good reminder of the importance and value of qualified immunity as a defense to litigation in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (federal appeals court covering Georgia, Florida and Alabama).  In Gaines, a school teacher, Lynda Gaines, filed a Section 1983 claim against the school superintendent, Dr. Casey Wardynski, alleging violations of her First Amendment right of freedom of speech and freedom of association.  After Gaines filed suit and before discovery commenced, Dr. Wardysnki filed a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity.  The district court denied the motion and Dr. Wardysnki appealed.

In short, Gaines’ claim arose out of a dispute in May of 2013 when Gaines’ father, a county commissioner, “blasted” the Hunstville City Board of Education and Dr. Wardynski for recent actions they were taking.  Gaines, who was a teacher in the Huntsville school system at the time, alleged that, after the article was published, she was denied a promotion to one of three open teaching positions in retaliation for her father’s comments. While the district court denied Dr. Wardynski’s motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, the Eleventh Circuit reversed.  Through its decision, the Eleventh Circuit reminded practitioners that, in order for a constitutional right to be clearly established by law under the doctrine of qualified immunity, the clearly established law must be specifically particularized to the facts of the case. The Eleventh Circuit concluded in Gaines that the case law that the district court and Gaines cited “was not particularized to the facts of the case, but rather merely set out First Amendment principals at a high level of generality.”  As a result, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that the defendants had not violated a clearly established constitutional right.

As a part of its decision, the court emphasized that whether a right is clearly established turns on whether the governmental official had fair warning.  According to the court, there are three methods for a plaintiff to show fair warning: (1) citing a materially similar case already decided; (2) pointing to a broader clearly established principle that should control the novel facts of the situation; and (3) where the conduct of a situation so obviously violates the constitution, prior case law is unnecessary.

Here, the court quickly moved past the second and third methods, which are rare and generally involve cases of egregious conduct. Instead, this decision turned on whether there was a materially similar case already decided. The Eleventh Circuit stressed that the “materially similar case” analysis is not a general inquiry, but rather must (1) be particularized to the facts; (2) be particularized to the context; and (3) give notice to the governmental official.  As a part of its analysis, the Eleventh Circuit stopped short of saying that the facts must be directly on point, but emphasized the facts must be close enough to put the “question beyond debate” and must come from a previously-issued decision of the United States Supreme Court, the governing federal court of appeals, or the applicable state supreme court.

In the end, the Gaines decision emphasized just how difficult it is for a plaintiff to overcome qualified immunity because of the level of particularity required for a case to be materially similar in facts and context.  As a result, when government officials are facing suits for constitutional violations, it is critical for them to remember to assess the potential use of a qualified immunity defense at the outset of the case.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Bradley Adler at [email protected] or Will Collins at [email protected].