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November 20, 2018

Politically motivated termination

Politically motivated termination
Martin Gordon, et al., v County of Rockland, US Circuit Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, 110 F.3d 886

Allegations that an employee was dismissed because of political affiliation -- or lack thereof -- has generated many law suits.

The Gordon case is instructive because it sets out the views of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which includes New York State, concerning the standards to be applied in determining if a politically motivated termination violates the constitutional rights of the individual. 

The case arose after Rockland County fired three Assistant County Attorneys -- S. Martin Gordon, Eric Ole Thorsen, and Joel J. Flick. Alleging that their terminations violated their First Amendment rights to political affiliation, the three sued in an effort to win reinstatement to their former positions. A U.S. District Court jury ruled in their favor and the County appealed.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found an error in the lower court's procedure and initiated a de novo  review of the constitutionality of the dismissals. A review de novo is, in effect, "a new trial" of the matter.

The key issue was whether or not the Rockland County attorneys' were sufficiently non-political to entitle them to First Amendment protection from partisan political termination.

Courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have ruled that certain policy-making and confidential employees are exempt from First Amendment protection and can be lawfully fired because of their political beliefs.

Two seminal cases on the legality of politically motivated dismissals are:

1. Elrod v Burns, 427 US 347. In Elrod the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the politically motivated dismissals of employees in the Cook County (Illinois) Sheriff's Office was an unconstitutional interference with the employees' First Amendment freedoms of political belief and political association because the individuals terminated were not incumbents serving in "policymaking positions;" and

2. Branti v Finkel, 445 US 507. The high court said that the exemption allowing politically motivated dismissals extended to confidential employees as well as policymakers. But because Branti was neither a policymaker nor a confidential employee, he was entitled to First Amendment protection. The high court said that in evaluating whether it is permissible to dismiss an employee on the basis of political affiliation, "The focus ... should be not on the policymaking aspect of a plaintiff's employment, but rather on whether "party affiliation is an appropriate requirement" for effective job performance.

In the Rockland case, the Circuit Court of Appeals examined the nature of the attorneys' jobs and whether or not party affiliation was an appropriate requirement for job performance.

The Court considered whether its assessment of job duties should be based on the men's written job descriptions or the duties actually performed. Citing several supporting decisions, the Circuit Court said the assessment should be based on the power vested in the individual by law and the power which is inherent in the office. In other words, the job description is what counts in determining whether an employee has First Amendment  protection against politically motivated dismissals.

Gordon specialized in real property law, and handled Sewer Commission affairs;  Thorsen provided general legal services to the Highway Department and gave legal advice to the County's Planning and Parks Agencies; and Flick was an attorney in the Office of Community Development who advised municipal governments within the County as to whether their actions were in compliance with federal law.

The Court found all three positions encompassed serving as a legal advisor to a particular segment of county government, and representing the County in that capacity. This suggested they were policy-makers. The Court also analyzed whether the jobs were inherently political, using these questions as tests:

a. Is there  rational connection between shared ideology and job performance?

b. Is the employee in an exempt position and thus not subject to "civil service protection" under §75 of the Civil Service Law? [The Court cautioned that it does not presume employees are not entitled to First Amendment protection just because they are exempt from civil service protection. Also, it should be remembered that §75 covers many public employees serving in exempt or noncompetitive class positions who are honorably discharged veterans who served in time of war or who are certified as "exempt volunteer firefighters."]

c. Does the individual exercise technical competence or expertise that permits them to make independent judgment on policy matters?

d. Does the individual control or supervise others?

e. Is the individual authorized to speak in the name of policymakers?

f. Is the individual is perceived as a policymaker by the public?

g. Does the individual influence government programs?

h. Does the individual have contact with elected officials?

i. Is the individual responsive to partisan politics and political leaders?

The Court said a factor supporting a ruling that the three were protected by the First Amendment was that each was not in charge of a large group of employees. But, the Court also noted, Gordon, Thorsen, and Flick all had technical competence or expertise and each was a consultant to a specific policymaking board. Also influencing the decision was the Court's view that "the Legislature, which has perhaps the best knowledge of the responsibilities involved in the positions it created, designated these positions both as 'policymaking' and as exempt from civil service status." Of primary importance to the Court in resolving the issue, however, the fact that each of the three attorneys was empowered to act and speak on behalf of a policymaker, especially an elected official.

Editor's Note: Another aspect of the Rockland County case concerned the fact that the County Attorney was not elected but rather appointed by the Legislature, which is itself elected.

In the words of the Court, "all three plaintiffs advised the Legislature or Commissions set up by the Legislature or County Executive, both of which are elected." The Court concluded that each of the attorney's "advice to and representation of top policymaking officials in the County" justified their dismissal for political reasons.

Why? The Court said that "it is difficult to fathom how such responsibilities can be undertaken and done well without their "political or social philosophy [making] a difference in the implementation of programs."

Although the three attorneys contended that did not make policy, the Court concluded that this factor was outweighed by the evidence that they can act in the stead of the County Attorney. Further, the Court said that their claim that they "only gave legal advice" had been earlier rejected as justification for an employee coming within the Branti exception, citing the Third Circuit's ruling in Ness v Marshall, 660 F2d 517.

In Ness the Circuit Court decided that the positions of City Solicitor and Assistant City Solicitor were not protected by the First Amendment despite the solicitors' argument that they performed only "purely technical legal work." The Court said that the duties the solicitors could perform -- "rendering legal opinions, drafting ordinances, [and] negotiating contracts -- define a position for which party affiliation is an appropriate requirement."

A fair conclusion, according the Gordon ruling, is that these Assistant County Attorneys, "because of the discretion with which they are charged, and because of their authority to act on behalf of the County, are politically accountable to the Legislature and the County Executive such that their loyalty helps ensure that the mandate of the electorate is effectively carried out." The Court reversed the jury's decision in Gordon, Thorsen, and Flick favor, holding the three exempt from First Amendment protection against politically motivated dismissal.


Subsequent court and administrative rulings, or changes to laws, rules and regulations may have modified or clarified or vacated or reversed the decisions summarized here. Accordingly, these summaries should be Shepardized® or otherwise checked to make certain that the most recent information is being considered by the reader.
New York Public Personnel Law Blog Editor Harvey Randall served as Principal Attorney, New York State Department of Civil Service; Director of Personnel, SUNY Central Administration; Director of Research, Governor’s Office of Employee Relations; and Staff Judge Advocate General, New York Guard. Consistent with the Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations, the material posted to this blog is presented with the understanding that neither the publisher nor members of the NYPPL staff are providing legal advice to the reader and in the event legal or other expert assistance is needed, the reader is urged to seek such advice from a knowledgeable professional.
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