August 18, 2022

Union leader's arguments with fellow School District personnel held to have been made in his capacity as a School District employee and thus not within the ambit of the First Amendment

Plaintiff [Union Leader], in this appeal of an adverse decision by a federal district court to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, contends that his employer [School District] violated his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him for speech he claims to have made in his capacity as a union leader. 

However, the Second Circuit observed that in his complaint filed with the federal district-court Union Leader merely alleged that he had argued with "a School District mechanic – and later, a few School District officials" – over the frequency with which bus safety issues should be reported." Union Leader, however, did not allege that the School District’s existing policy permitted unsafe buses to remain on the roads, nor did he allege that daily reporting would improve public safety. Thus the court concluded that Union Leader's claims "suggest nothing more than a workplace dispute between School District employees about internal reporting protocols." 

The Circuit Court explaining that Union Leader did not plausibly allege that he spoke as a citizen or that he spoke on a matter of public concern thus being engaged "in speech protected under the First Amendment," affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Union Leader's complaint.* 

Although Union Leader argued that the School District "infringed his right to engage in speech protected by the First Amendment" the Circuit Court, citing Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410. noted that “when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties ... the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.” In contrast, said the court, the First Amendment "protects a public employee’s right, in certain circumstances, to speak as a citizen addressing matters of public concern,” [Id. at 417]. 

The specific details provided in the Complaint suggest that Union Leader's arguments with fellow School District personnel were made in his capacity as a School District employee, not as a private citizen,  noting that the Second Circuit has expressly rejected any categorical rule “that when a person speaks in his capacity as a union member, he speaks as a private citizen,” citing Montero v. City of Yonkers, 890 F.3d 386. 

Concluding that Union Leader "failed to establish that he engaged in protected speech, he cannot make out a prima facie case of First Amendment retaliation," the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Union Leader's complaint. 

* Judge Rosemary S. Pooler dissenting in a separate opinion. 

Click HERE to access the Second Circuit's decision.

 

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