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April 12, 2010

Firefighter demoted after being found to have engaged in an extramarital affair with a subordinate

Firefighter demoted after being found to have engaged in an extramarital affair with a subordinate
Starling v Bd. Of City Commissioner, USCA, 11th Circuit, #09-11168

Randolph Starling, a Palm Beach County firefighter, sued the County Commission pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 alleging that it violated his First Amendment right of association after the County demoted him for engaging in an extramarital affair with one of his subordinates.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, after assuming arguendo that the First Amendment protected extramarital associations as fundamental right, sustained the Commissions’ action.

The Circuit Court noted that the Palm Beach County Operational Procedure “strongly discourages” romantic relationships between supervisors and subordinates because there is always a “potential for abuse of power” and “sexual harassment” in those relationships.

The court explained that the County’s interest in maintaining an effective functioning of the Fire Department by discouraging extramarital relationships between supervisors and subordinate outweighed Starling’s interest in an extramarital association with a subordinate employees.

In the “quasi-military” context, said the court, which includes both fire departments and police stations it had afforded public employers greater latitude to burden an employee’s rights, particularly when the exercise of that right impacts discipline, morale, harmony, uniformity, and trust in the ranks.

Posted on the Internet at: http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200911168.pdf

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Text prepared by Harvey Randall except as otherwise noted. Randall, former Principal Attorney, New York State Department of Civil Service, also served as Director of Personnel for the State University System; as Director of Research, Governor’s Office of Employee Relations; and as Staff Judge Advocate General, New York Guard. He has an MPA from the Maxwell School, Syracuse University and a J.D. from Albany Law School.