19 June 2014

Law in Plain English: Lane v. Franks

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogLane v. Franks

Argument: Apr 28 2014 (Aud.)

Background: In September 2006, Edward Lane accepted a probationary position as Director of Central Alabama Community College (CACC)'s Community Intensive Training for Youth Program ("CITY"), a program for at-risk youth. Soon after assuming his duties, Lane audited CITY's finances and discovered that then-state representative Suzanne Schmitz was listed on CITY's payroll but was not reporting for work and had not otherwise performed tangible work for the program. Soon thereafter, Lane terminated Schmitz's employment with CITY after Schmitz refused to report to work. Soon after Schmitz's job termination, the FBI began investigating Schmitz and contacted Lane for information. Lane testified before a federal grand jury and — pursuant to a subpoena — testified at Schmitz's August 2008 federal criminal trial for mail fraud and fraud involving a program receiving federal funds. In late 2008 — due to substantial budget cuts — Lane's employment was terminated by Steve Franks, CACC's President. Lane filed a civil action against Franks — in both his official and individual capacity — alleging that Franks terminated Lane in retaliation for testifying against Schmitz, in violation of the First Amendment. The district court granted Franks's motion for summary judgment. Although the district court couched its decision in terms of qualified immunity, it determined that Lane's speech was made pursuant to his official duties as CITY's Director, not as a citizen on a matter of public concern. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, finding that the record failed to establish that Lane testified as a citizen on a matter of public concern: as a matter of law, he could not state a claim for retaliation under the First Amendment.

Issue: The questions before the Court are (1) whether the government is categorically free under the First Amendment to retaliate against a public employee for truthful sworn testimony that was compelled by subpoena and was not a part of the employee’s ordinary job responsibilities; and (2) whether qualified immunity precludes a claim for damages in such an action.

Holding: In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Lane's sworn testimony outside the scope of his ordinary job duties is entitled to First Amendment protection. His testimony was speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern. However, the Court also found that Franks possessed qualified immunity for the termination of Franks because the existence of First Amendment protection was not “beyond debate.” 
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