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Posts Tagged ‘First Amendment’

Section 1983 First Amendment Retaliation by Litigation: SOL without PC

Posted on: January 14th, 2020

By: Brent Bean

“When angry count to ten before you speak.  If very angry, count to one hundred.”  – Thomas Jefferson

In a case of first impression in the Eleventh Circuit, the Court held that in a Section 1983 First Amendment retaliation claim premised on the filing of a civil lawsuit, probable cause will generally defeat the claim as a matter of law.  See DeMartini v. Town of Gulf Stream, Case No. 17-14177 (11th Cir., Nov. 21, 2019).

A Section 1983 First Amendment retaliation claim requires the plaintiff to show (1) she engaged in protected speech, (2) the government’s retaliatory conduct adversely affected that speech and (3) a causal link exists between the conduct and the adverse effect.  As the Supreme Court observed, retaliatory animus is “easy to allege and hard to disprove.”  Nieves v. Bartlett, 587 U.S. ___, ___, 139 S.Ct. 1715, 1725, (2019).

There are two accepted methods of showing causation.  The first, typically used in the employment setting, is whether the retaliatory motivation was the but-for cause of the adverse action.  If not, or if the government would have taken the same action regardless of retaliatory animus, the defendant is not liable.  The second, typically used when the government uses the legal system to arrest or prosecute a plaintiff, is to ask whether there was probable cause for the arrest or prosecution.  If so, this will destroy the casual link.

In DeMartini, the plaintiff sued the Town of Gulf Stream, Florida (population 2000), for filing a civil RICO action against DeMartini and her business, CAFI.  The Town filed the lawsuit because CAFI had made thousands of public records requests designed to overwhelm the small town’s staff and lead to the recovery of attorney’s fees for non-compliance.

In the face of these requests, the Town received a sworn statement from an insider at CAFI attesting the requests were bogus and designed to lead to monetary recovery. The Town then engaged outside counsel to advise on merits of a lawsuit to stop the abuse.  The Town filed the RICO case, which was dismissed because the Town could show no predicate act.

DeMartini then sued the Town under Section 1983 for First Amendment retaliation, claiming the RICO lawsuit was unlawful retaliation designed to silence her right to seek redress, a First Amendment right.  She claimed public statements made at Town meetings confirmed the retaliatory animus for the lawsuit and the RICO lawsuit had no merit, as it was dismissed and affirmed on appeal.

The Eleventh Circuit considered whether a plaintiff asserting a claim for Section 1983 First Amendment retaliation based on the filing of a civil lawsuit is required to plead and prove an absence of probable cause for the civil lawsuit and whether the Town in fact lacked such probable cause.

The Court held that while the RICO lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, it was not without probable cause because the Town had sworn facts from an insider and had hired a lawyer who advised them on the law. So, the Court concluded the Town had a reasonable belief in the validity of the RICO claim.  The Court then held for retaliatory claims based on a civil lawsuit DeMartini had to show an absence of probable cause in the filing of the RICO lawsuit, which DeMartini could not do.

Governments seeking to take affirmative steps through civil litigation will be one-hundred times better served to first confirm their claims are supported by probable cause prior to filing a civil lawsuit.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Brent Bean at [email protected].

Can Silence Be Bought as Part of a Settlement of a Use of Force Claim?

Posted on: July 30th, 2019

By: Jake Loken

Can silence be bought, especially of those who claim excessive use of force? The City of Baltimore thought so, until the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said otherwise.

In Overbey v. Mayor of Balt., No. 17-2444 (4th Cir.), decided July 11, 2019, the Fourth Circuit found that public policy and First Amendment rights outweighed the interests of the City of Baltimore in enforcing non-disparagement clauses found in the City’s settlement agreements, which settled use of force claims.

The Fourth Circuit explained that when an individual brought claims of excessive force, the City of Baltimore would only settle the claims if the individual agreed to a non-disparagement clause, which constitutes a waiver of the individuals First Amendment rights, as it prevents that individual from speaking about their claims, the facts of their claims, or the settlement process itself. If the individual did speak out, the non-disparagement clause would be breached, and the individual would be required to return half of the settlement amount back to the City.

Usually, individuals may waive their constitutional rights as part of a settlement, but only if “the interest in enforcing the waiver is not outweighed by a relevant public policy that would be harmed by enforcement.” But in the case of non-disparagement clauses, where individuals’ First Amendment rights are waived regarding speaking out about alleged excessive, the Fourth Circuit said such clauses were unenforceable. The Fourth Circuit explained that “unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials can play a valuable role in civil life and therefore enjoy the protection of the First Amendment. Enforcing a waiver of First Amendment rights for the very purpose of insulating public officials from unpleasant attacks would plainly undermine that core First Amendment principle.”

The ruling is a reminder that public policy must be taken into consideration when deciding to contractual wave constitutional rights, and acts as a reminder that silence can be hard to buy.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jake Loken at [email protected].

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 wjackson[email protected].

Supreme Court Ends Compulsory Union Payments for Government Employees – So What’s Next?

Posted on: July 5th, 2018

By: Brad Adler & Matt Weiss

On Wednesday June 27, the United States Supreme Court reached a landmark 5-4 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 wherein it ruled that the Constitution’s First Amendment prohibits public sector unions from collecting fees from non-union members.   While the scope of the impact of this ruling will be unknown for years, there is no doubt that Janus weakens the ability of public sector unions to raise money.

In Janus, an employee with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services sued the American Federation of State County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 (“AFSCME”) to challenge an “agency fee” that he was required to pay to the union under the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act.  The Act provided that, if a majority of employees in a bargaining unit voted to be represented by a union, the union was designated as the exclusive representative of all employees and, even though employees were not obligated to join the union, they were required to pay the agency fee, a percentage of union dues for “chargeable expenditures,” i.e., the portion of union dues attributable to activities germane to the union’s duties as a collective bargaining representative.  The agency fee excluded “nonchargeable expenditures,” which funded the union’s political and ideological projects.  This distinction between chargeable and nonchargeable expenditures was the framework created by the Supreme Court in its 1977 decision Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209.

The Supreme Court elected to use Janus as a vehicle to overturn Abood and hold that the Illinois law that required nonunion public employees to pay an agency fee to a public union constituted a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech, even if the fees only consisted of chargeable expenditures.  The Court assessed the agency fees under an exacting standard, which required a showing that “a compelled subsidy must serve a compelling state interest that cannot be achieved through means significantly less restrictive of associational freedoms.”  Applying the standard, the Court declined to identify a “compelling state interest” and found that public-sector unions could no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees.

The Court’s ruling in Janus very likely will have a direct effect on 5 million public employees in 22 states, including California, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, who are no longer required to pay agency fees for a union in which they are not a member.  However, the impact of this decision is less direct in states where agency fees and, in some cases, public sector collective bargaining, are either non-existent or prohibited.  Nonetheless, even in these states, the Supreme Court’s basic holding in Janus, that the government cannot compel its employees to make payments for causes with which they disagree, could be applied in a variety of other contexts such as mandatory contributions to government pension funds.

Whether the Supreme Court will expand on this newly identified First Amendment right of government employees and non-union members remains to be seen, especially in light of Justice Kennedy’s retirement announcement.  The one certainty is that public unions in cities and counties in nearly half the states in the country will no longer be able to require non-union employees to contribute union fees.  And very few doubt that this new legal reality will reduce (in some capacity) the power of public unions by shrinking their financial base of support and by potentially reducing their membership.

But lawmakers in some states already are rallying to pass statutes that will allow unions to limit the services they provide to only those employees that pay union dues.  As a result, it is important for employers to keep informed on any new Janus-induced union laws in states in which they operate.  In fact, in anticipation of an adverse ruling, on April 12, New York passed legislation that relieved unions from representing the interests of non-members in different areas.

The Janus decision is only the latest chapter in a long and unfinished story written about the constitutionality of certain activities of public sector unions.  More to come in the years ahead. . .

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Brad Adler at [email protected] or Matt Weiss at [email protected].

Philadelphia’s “Salary History Ban Law” Gets Banned!

Posted on: May 7th, 2018

By: John McAvoy

More than a half-century after President JFK signed the Equal Pay Act, the gender pay gap is still with us. Women earn 79 cents for every dollar men earn, according to the Census Bureau.  What will it take to bridge that stubborn pay gap? Well, some believe we can and will reduce the impact of previous discrimination by not asking new hires for their salary history. Several cities and states agree with this approach and have passed legislation that prohibits employers from asking questions about an applicant’s salary history. In the cities and states where such laws have been passed, they are not without controversy.

Philadelphia passed a similar law last year. In response, Philadelphia’s Chamber of Commerce, backed by some of Philadelphia’s biggest employers, including Comcast and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), filed suit against the City of Philadelphia challenging the constitutionality of the salary history ban law, arguing the portion of the law that prevents companies from inquiring about an applicant’s wage history violated an employer’s free speech rights.

On Monday, April 30, 2018, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania made two rulings with respect to Philadelphia’s salary history ban law in the matter of Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia v. City of Philadelphia, docket no. 2:17-cv-01548-MSG (E.D. Pa. Apr. 30, 2018) (Goldberg, J.).

First, the court found that the law as written violated the First Amendment free speech rights of Philadelphia employers. In sum, the court’s ruling is that employers can ask salary history questions.

Second, the court upheld the ‘reliance provision’ of the salary history ban law, which makes it illegal to rely upon that wage history to set the employee’s compensation.  This means that Philadelphia employers can ask salary history but cannot use it as a basis to set salary.  The purpose of this is to encourage employers to offer potential candidates what the job is worth rather than based on prior salary which could have been set based on discriminatory factors.

There is a prevailing trend nationwide for salary history ban laws. To date, California, Delaware, Massachusetts, Oregon, Puerto Rico, New York’s Albany County, New York City, and San Francisco have enacted salary history ban laws, and at least 14 other states are considering following suit.  Although we anticipate future and continued legal challenges, it seems likely that laws banning salary history inquiries will continue to gain ground, particularly in more progressive states or areas where the pay disparity directly impacts a large segment of eligible voters. As such, prudent employers should prepare themselves to address this new workforce right through smart planning and proper training of employees, including managers, supervisors and HR personnel responsible for ensuring a lawful hiring process.

Want to learn more about what Philadelphia’s salary history ban law means for your business? Let us help you by analyzing your hiring practices. Please call or email the employment experts and John McAvoy (215.789.4919 [email protected]).