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December 10, 2018

Employee alleges unlawful retaliation after reporting the unauthorized use of a State computer database by another employee

Employee alleges unlawful retaliation after reporting the unauthorized use of a State computer database by another employee
Gorman v Rensselaer County et al, USCA Second Circuit, No.17-1120-cv

John Gorman alleged that the Rensselaer County defendants in this Civil Rights action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 retaliated against him in violation of his First Amendment rights as the result of his filing a report that a fellow employee in the Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Department had misused the New York State's Division of Criminal Justice Services' [DCJS] "eJusticeNY" program.*

DCJS' eJusticeNY computer program is a digital repository of criminal justice information, including information concerning individuals outside New York State, and is used by law enforcement agencies throughout New York.

The auditor of the eJusticeNY program had been advised that the program had been used by a Rensselaer County correction officer to run an unauthorized background check for allegedly personal reasons. The matter was ultimately referred to the District Attorney.

The correction officer reported by Gorman to have accessed the eJusticeNY for personal reasons was suspended from work, charged with misuse of the eJusticeNY program and subsequently pleaded guilty to “misuse of a computer,” a misdemeanor.

In adjudicating Gorman's civil rights complaint, the Circuit Court found it necessary to address a number of collateral issues, including the following:

1. Protected speech

Under the First Amendment, a public employee who speaks as a citizen on a matter of public concern is protected from the employer’s retaliation. Singer v. Ferro, 711 F.3d 334, 339 (2d Cir. 2013). Whether an employee’s speech constitutes a matter of public concern is a question of law. Id. “Only if the court concludes that the employee did speak in this manner does it move on to the so-called Pickering balancing, at which stage ‘a court . . . balances the interests of the employer in providing effective and efficient public services against the employee’s First Amendment right to free expression.’” Id. (quoting Lewis v. Cowen, 165 F.3d 154, 162 (2d Cir. 1999)).

“To constitute speech on a matter of public concern, an employee’s expression must ‘be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.’” Jackler v. Byrne, 658 F.3d 225, 236 (2d Cir. 2011) (quoting Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 146 (1983)).

But speech that “primarily concerns an issue that is personal in nature and generally related to the speaker’s own situation, such as his or her assignments, promotion, or salary, does not address matters of public concern.” Id. (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted). “Whether an employee’s speech addresses a matter of public concern must be determined by the content, form, and context of a given statement, as revealed by the whole record.” Connick, 461 U.S. at 147–48.

Relevant considerations include “whether the speech was calculated to redress personal grievances or whether it had a broader public purpose.” Lewis, 165 F.3d at 163–64.

2. Qualified immunity

“Qualified immunity protects public officials from liability for civil damages when one of two conditions is satisfied: (a) the defendant’s action did not violate clearly established law, or (b) it was objectively reasonable for the defendant to believe that his action did not violate such law.” Russo v. City of Bridgeport, 479 F.3d 196, 211 (2d Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Clearly established law “do[es] not require a case directly on point, but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Walker v. Schult, 717 F.3d 119, 125–26 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Ashcroft v. Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011)). “Although we generally look to Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedent existing at the time of the alleged violation to determine whether the conduct violated a clearly established right, the absence of a decision by this Court or the Supreme Court directly addressing the right at issue will not preclude a finding that the law was clearly established so long as preexisting law clearly foreshadows a particular ruling on the issue.” Garcia v. Does, 779 F.3d 84, 92 (2d Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted).

3. Official misconduct

“Exposure of official misconduct, especially within the police department, is generally of great consequence to the public.” Jackler, 658 F.3d at 236 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). In Jackler, the plaintiff was a probationary police officer who corroborated a civilian complaint of excessive force, and resisted pressure to conceal the misconduct. Id. at 230–31.

Observing that the Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of excessive force by police, and that the misconduct at issue implicated “public safety and welfare” and the “preservation of the public fisc,” we held that “police malfeasance consisting of the use of excessive force is plainly a matter of public concern.” Id. at 236-37.

At the same time, “[n]o authority supports [the] argument that reporting an alleged crime always implicates matters of public concern.” Nagle, 663 F.3d at 107. In Nagle, the plaintiff was a special education teacher who informed several individuals that her signature had been forged on an official report. Id. at 103. The forgery was not a matter of public concern because, “even if such conduct were criminal, [it] had no practical significance to the general public.” Id. at 107. Furthermore, the forgery did not reveal “an ongoing pattern of conduct or even a particularly important instance of bad judgment” that might implicate public concern. Id. at 108.

* The Division of Criminal Justice Services has a variety of responsibilities, including law enforcement training; collection and analysis of statewide crime data; maintenance of criminal history information and fingerprint files; administrative oversight of the state's DNA databank in partnership with the New York State Police; funding and oversight of probation and community correction programs; administration of federal and state criminal justice funds; support of criminal justice-related agencies across the state; and the administration of New York State's Sex Offender Registry.

The Gorman decision containing these observations is posted on the Internet at:


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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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