Sixth Circuit Affirms Public Employee's Petition Not Protected under the First Amendment

posted by Neil E. Klingshirn | January 10, 2017 in Employment Law

In 1980, Glen Naghtin began working for the Montague Fire Department (“Montague”) until his termination in December 2011. Dennis Roesler was appointed as Chief of Montague in 1998. Montague authorized the construction of a new fire station in 2009. After that project began, Donald Roesler, the Chief’s brother and the Captain, began to express concerns about the structure. Specifically, concerning fire-code violations and deviations from planned specifications. Donald requested a leave of absence because of the tension surrounding his concerns. Chief Roesler denied Donald’s leave and demoted him. Donald resubmitted his leave request; the Chief granted this second request. When nothing had been done about the construction of the new station, it was clear to Donald that he would have to resign or return to work in his demoted position.

Naghtin created a petition calling for Donald’s reinstatement as Captain and circulated it throughout the Department for various members to sign, but not to Chief Roesler. Naghtin sent the signed petition to Chief Roesler and the Montague Board. On November 29, 2011, the Montague Board held a special Personnel Committee meeting to discuss the petition. During this meeting, one of the Board’s attorneys advised the Board to formally construe the petition as a complaint. Montague required employees to follow a four-step complaint procedure, which required employees to first submit complaints to the fire chief and then to an officers’ meeting. Only if these both failed could an employee submit a complaint directly to the Board. Because Naghtin submitted the petition directly to the Board, he violated that procedure. The Board held a “special meeting” on December 7, 2011 to discuss a disciplinary response to the petition. During the meeting, Naghtin stated that he saw the petition as a request for action—not a complaint. Chief Roesler recommended that Naghtin be terminated. The Board voted to accept the termination and summarily terminated Naghtin at the meeting.

Naghtin sued Chief Roesler and Montague alleging that they violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition for redress. The district court granted summary judgment to the Chief and Montague because Naghtin failed to demonstrate that his petition amounted to constitutionally protected conduct. It found that Naghtin did not speak on a matter of public concern as the petition was “quintessential employee beef.” Even if the petition was protected conduct, Montague’s interest in department efficiency outweighed Naghtin’s constitutional rights and further, Chief Roesler was entitled to qualified immunity. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The thrust of Naghtin’s petition was a request to reinstate Donald Roesler, whose removal from the position of captain resembled the sort of “internal office politics” that consistently falls outside the scope of First Amendment protection—even though the petition mentioned the “long term good of the Fire District, Fire Department, and its tax payers.” Naghtin also argued that his motive in writing the petition was to protest the improper dismissal of a fellow employee and not himself, but this was not enough to transform the petition into protected speech. Finally, Naghtin argued that the petition addressed a matter of public concern through the underlying issues related to the new fire house. The petition, however, did not include any such reference. To allow a post-hoc rationalization not contained in the speech itself would begin to “constitutionalize the employee grievance.” The Sixth Circuit did not address the balancing test or grounds of qualified-immunity in light of its conclusion that the petition did not touch on a matter of public concern and thus did not qualify for First Amendment protection.

(This is general legal information and is not offered as specific legal advice.  Do not rely on this information to make decisions about your rights.  If you have questions about potential free speech violations in the workplace, contact an attorney).

Naghtin v. Montague Fire District Board, ___ Fed. Appx. ___ (6th Cir. Dec. 30, 2016)

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