Thursday, April 15, 2010

Can Testifying on a work matter get you promoted, demoted, or fired?

"It is equally well-settled that refusing to renew an employee's contract for public employment as a result of the employee's exercise of First Amendment rights, even where the employee does not have a right to such renewal, constitutes a form of retaliation prohibited by the First Amendment." See e.g. Newsom v. Norris, 888 F. 2d.371. 376 (6th Cir. 1989)" (Quote from Tammy v. CVSD case)

The decision in the case 2:09cv1086, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31605, Tammy Whitfield, Plaintiff vs. Chartiers Valley School District(CVSD) and Chartiers Valley School Board, Defendants was issued on Aug. 17, 2009 and decided on March 31, 2010 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Whitfield, an assistant superintendant at CVSD, filed this suit against her employer because she didn't think testifying at a school board hearing would hinder the renewal of her contract with CVSD. This request for an injunction was sought to stop the defendants from retaliating against the plaintiff for using her rights granted under the First Amendment.
Whitfield has been employed with CVSD for the past twenty-one years and in Oct. 2004 she obtained the assistant superintendent position. Her contract started on Nov. 1, 2004 and was for a period of five years(until Nov. 1, 2009). Two years into serving as assistant superintendent, a matter came to light about one of CVSD's employees, Tim McConnell. In 2006 McConnell was the basketball coach and dean of students at a middle school. As the dean of students, the Pennsylvania public school regulations require h/she to have a PA Public School Certificate or a emergency permit, which McConnell needed in order to renew his contract. He showed no interest in enrolling at a university to obtain the certification and in consequence he was suspended for twenty days without pay in 2006.
Anthony Skender, the new superintendent, asked the plaintiff to investigate enrollment policies at local universities, in order to determine the opportunities that have been available. McConnell appealed his suspension and a public hearing was held on Nov. 1, 2006, where the plaintiff was asked to testify under oath regarding background facts and events leading to his suspension. During her testimony there was a lot of disapproval being expressed, mainly by two other members on the school board. Also during her testimony, McConnell's attorney attempted to show that there was some bias expressed against his client during a board meeting when his suspension was discussed. Over all McConnell, in Feb. 2008 settled the appeal and his suspension was reduced to ten days with back pay and elimination of requiring him to return to college.
In March 2009 the plaintiff received a letter stating that her contract is set to expire in Oct. 2009, which gave her 210 days in advance notice, but Whitfield states that her actual contract required 365 days of notice. In May 2009 she worked with the director of human resources to form a purposed contract with some stipulations that she wanted to include in her new contract. May 12, 2009 a committee was put together in order to discuss he renewal of the plaintiff's contract. Because there were differences in her contract with CVSD, the plaintiff hired counsel and afterward no one was allowed to speak to the plaintiff about her contract only through her attorney. On Aug. 11, 2009 the committee was suppose to discuss her contract once again but several disagreed. "Board member Galluze responded: 'she hired an attorney so I wash my hands with her.' Board member Kelly agreed and further commented that plaintiff's hiring attorney did not how good faith, so she had no interest further pursuing the matter." Whitfield filed the suit on Aug. 17, 2009. In order for Whitfield to gain injunctive relief she has to prove that her contract was not renewed(retaliation from the board members) because she exercised her first amendment right by testifying against a CVSD employee and that a showing of an imminent irreparable injury has taken place.
The defendants claim that Whitfield's testimony was given as "official duties" as assistant superintendent based upon the case Garcetti v. Ceballos, therefore her speech is not protected; "the court reasoned that limiting an employee's speech that arises only as part of his "professional responsibilities" does not encroach on the freedoms the employee enjoys as a citizen" (Quote within case). However the courts says that she spoke as a citizen at the appeal hearing and that her speech enjoys first amendment protection. Because of the disapproval from other board members, the defendants had to show justification for treating Whitfield differently after her testimony, but they didn't have enough proof. Therefore it shows that certain board members didn't want to discuss her contract in retaliation for the testimony. In other words, her testimony played a huge role in determining her current state of employment. Finally, the plaintiff proved imminent irreparable injury/damage because there is already distrust and a lack of corporation between Whitfield and other board members so restoring her to assistant superintendent with a new contract is unthinkable.
For many other reasons that were detailed in the case "the plaintiff's motion for injunctive relief will be granted. "

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