E-Alert Case Updates
Fourth Circuit Holds That Employee Grievances Addressed Through Internal Resolution Procedures are not “Public Concerns” Warranting Constitutional Protection
James Brooks et al. v. Howard Arthur et al.
In Brooks v. Arthur, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Defendants, Howard Arthur and Randal Mitchell, who were alleged to have unlawfully fired two (2) employees for exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech. Writing for the Court, Judge Wilkinson relied upon Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 149 (1983), Pickering v. Bd. of Educ., 391 U.S. 563 (1968), and United States v. Nat’l Treasury Employees Union, 513 U.S. 454 (1995) in concluding that “‘complaints about . . . the employee’s own duties’” that are “filed with an employer using an internal grievance procedure . . . do[ ] not relate to a matter of public concern and accordingly may give rise to discipline without imposing any special burden of justification on the government employer.”
Plaintiffs, James Brooks and Donald Hamlette, were employees of the Virginia Department of Corrections (“VDOC”) working at Rustburg Correctional Unit Number Nine (9) in Rustburg, Virginia. Brooks was a senior corrections officer, supervised by Hamlette, a lieutenant. Both men reported to Arthur, the Superintendent, and Mitchell, the Assistant Superintendent. On April 7, 2006, Brooks met with a personnel assistant in VDOC’s Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) office to discuss filing a discrimination charge against Arthur. No formal charge was made at that time, but on May 9, 2006, Brooks met with the VDOC’s Regional Director and Arthur’s direct superior to elaborate on his complaints. Among other things, Brooks reported that Mitchell embarrassed him by reprimanding him in front of inmates in violation of Department policy. Similarly, on April 21, 2006, Hamlette filed an EEO complaint that Arthur and Mitchell discriminated against him on the basis of his race and religion. Specifically, Hameltte complained that as the only African American lieutenant in the unit, he was treated differently from other officers. Hamlette named Brooks as a potential witness to instances of the discriminatory treatment.
On August 30, 2006, one day before witness responses were due to the EEO, Arthur issued termination notices to Hamlette and Brooks for disciplinary violations that Arthur allegedly observed during a monthly security inspection of the unit. These notices stated that Brooks and Hamlette failed to staff posts as required and falsified inmate count records. Brooks and Hamlette challenged their terminations with the VDOC Department of Employment Dispute Resolution, which reduced the severity of the charges, limited the punishment to ten-day suspensions, reinstated both men’s employment, and awarded them back pay.
On September 2, 2008, Brooks and Hamlette filed complaints in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Arthur and Mitchell: (1) retaliated against them for exercising their First Amendment rights in the course of filing their employment complaint; (2) deprived them of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment by interfering with the employment dispute process; and (3) tortiously interfered with their employment contracts with VDOC. The District Court initially dismissed the Complaint in its entirety as barred by res judicata, holding that the VDOC, Arthur, and Mitchell were in privity during the employment dispute resolution proceedings. See Brooks v. Arthur, 611 F. Supp. 2d 592 (W.D. Va. 2009). The Court of Appeals reversed that determination and allowed the claims to proceed. See Brooks v. Arthur, 626 F.3d 194 (4th Cir. 2010). On remand, the District Court concluded that “the ‘threshold question’ of showing that Plaintiffs’ speech addressed a matter of public concern has not been satisfied,” Brooks v. Arthur, 2011 WL 3102791, at *14 (W.D. Va. 2011) (internal citation omitted), and therefore granted summary judgment for Arthur and Mitchell on July 26, 2011. Brooks and Hamlette appealed.
The Fourth Circuit began its analysis by citing to Connick, where the Supreme Court emphasized the need for an employee to speak as a citizen on matters of public concern. Id. at 143. To implement Connick, the Court of Appeals revisited its precedence in Daniels v. Quinn, 801 F.2d 687 (4th Cir. 1986) and McVey v. Stacy, 157 F.3d 271 (4th Cir. 1998). Both cases articulated a three-part test to determine whether a public employee has stated a First Amendment claim for retaliatory discharge. First, a court considers “whether the public employee was speaking as a citizen upon a matter of public concern or as an employee about a matter of personal interest.” Id. at 277. Second, even if the employee spoke upon a matter of public concern, the court must determine “whether the employee’s interest in speaking upon the matter of public concern outweighed the government’s interest” in managing the working environment. Id. And finally, if the employee’s claim satisfies both of these legal criteria, the court turns to the factual question of “whether the employee’s speech was a substantial factor in the employee’s termination decision.” Id. at 277–78.
The Court determined that prong one (1) of the three-part test was not met in the instant case. It acknowledged that Connick reflects the belief that many ordinary disputes in the public workplace should be settled or resolved without drawing upon the Constitution. Additionally, the Supreme Court has expressed concern in affording broad application of the First Amendment to “grievances about conditions of employment that cannot be considered matters of public concern.” Nat’l Treasury Employees Union, 513 U.S. at 466; Pickering v. Bd. of Educ., 391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968). Examining the allegations of Brooks and Hamlette, the Court of Appeals held that the Complaints pertained to personal grievances about conditions of employment rather than broad matters of policy meriting First Amendment protection. Thus, while private matters between employers and employees may be the subject of internal controversy, a party’s sense of fair play is not the constitutional inquiry. For these reasons, the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s judgment in dismissing Plaintiffs’ claims.
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