A Washington County, Nebraska, sheriff who terminated a deputy sheriff who ran against him in a political campaign is not entitled to qualified immunity, a federal appeals court has ruled. The decision is significant, because it reaffirms the right of public employees to make statements as citizens on matters of public importance.
Donald Morgan, a deputy sheriff, ran against his boss, Sheriff Michael Robinson, in the 2014 primary election for sheriff. During the campaign, Morgan made political campaign statements at public arenas and on his website that were critical of how the sheriff’s office operated. For example, he criticized the office’s communication system and questioned office morale.
Robinson won the election and then six days later terminated Morgan allegedly for making false statements during the campaign. Morgan filed a grievance under a labor contract and an arbitrator ordered him reinstated.
Morgan then sued Robinson in federal court, alleging unlawful retaliation in violation of his First Amendment free-speech rights. Robinson filed a motion, contending he was entitled to qualified immunity. This doctrine protects government officials from liability unless they have violated clearly established constitutional or statutory rights.
A federal district court denied Robinson’s motion for qualified immunity, ruling that Morgan had a clearly established right to political speech during the campaign. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in Morgan v. Robinson.
The appeals court emphasized that Morgan spoke as a citizen on matters of public importance. Morgan spoke at a forum held at a high school, on his website, and to a newspaper. “None of [these political campaign statements] were disseminated to a closed audience or reported as part of Morgan’s official duties.”
The fact that Morgan spoke as a citizen when running for office is important in First Amendment law, because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006). In that decision, the court held that public employees have no First Amendment rights when speak pursuant to their official job duties. Morgan wasn’t speaking pursuant to his official job duties; rather, he was speaking more as a citizen running for public office.
Robinson focused his argument for qualified immunity on the fact that Morgan’s statements were false and disrupted the workings of the sheriff’s office. However, the 10th Circuit panel noted that there was no “concrete showing of the actual impact of Morgan’s speech on the efficiency of the sheriff’s office.” Mere allegations of disruption are not enough, the appeals court explained.
Instead, the appeals court reasoned that Sheriff Robinson should have known that firing an employee because of that employee’s speech during a political campaign was problematic. Thus, the 10th Circuit refused to grant Sheriff Robinson qualified immunity.
The case now goes back to the district court. Whether Morgan ultimately will prevail in the lawsuit is not known for certain.
What is certain, however, is the clear message sent by the 10th Circuit – a sheriff better be careful when terminating a deputy simply because the deputy challenges the sheriff in a political campaign.