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Law School Case Brief

Lane v. Franks - 573 U.S. 228, 134 S. Ct. 2369 (2014)


In Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Supreme Court of the United States described a two-step inquiry into whether a public employee’s speech is entitled to protection: The first step requires determining whether an employee spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern. If the answer is no, the employee has no First Amendment cause of action based on his or her employer’s reaction to the speech. If the answer is yes, then the possibility of a First Amendment claim arises. The question becomes whether the relevant government entity had an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from any other member of the general public. In describing the first step in this inquiry, Garcetti distinguished between employee speech and citizen speech. Whereas speech as a citizen may trigger protection, the Court held that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline. 


As Director of Community Intensive Training for Youth (CITY), a program for underprivileged youth operated by Central Alabama Community College (CACC), petitioner Edward Lane conducted an audit of the program's expenses and discovered that Suzanne Schmitz, an Alabama State Representative on CITY's payroll had not been reporting for work. Lane eventually terminated Schmitz' employment. Shortly thereafter, federal authorities indicted Schmitz on charges of mail fraud and theft concerning a program receiving federal funds. Under subpoena, Lane testified regarding the events that led to his terminating Schmitz. Schmitz was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Meanwhile, CITY was experiencing significant budget shortfalls. Franks, then CACC's president, terminated Lane along with 28 other employees in a claimed effort to address the financial difficulties. A few days later, however, Franks rescinded all but two of the 29 terminations, those of Lane and one other employee. Lane sued Franks in his individual and official capacities alleging that Franks had violated the First Amendment by firing him in retaliation for testifying against Schmitz. The District Court granted Franks' motion for summary judgment, holding that the individual-capacity claims were barred by qualified immunity and the official-capacity claims were barred by the Eleventh Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that Lane's testimony was not entitled to First Amendment protection. It reasoned that Lane spoke as an employee and not as a citizen because he acted pursuant to his official duties when he investigated and terminated Schmitz' employment.


Did the First Amendment protect Lane, as a public employee who provided truthful sworn testimony, compelled by subpoena, outside the scope of his ordinary job responsibilities?




The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari to resolve discord among the Courts of Appeals as to whether public employees may be fired—or suffer other adverse employment consequences—for providing truthful subpoenaed testimony outside the course of their ordinary job responsibilities. Although the Court agreed that Franks was entitled to qualified immunity, it reversed the Eleventh Circuit's judgment. The Court concluded conclude that Lane’s speech was entitled to protection under the First Amendment; thus, the Eleventh Circuit erred in holding otherwise and in dismissing Lane’s claim of retaliation on that basis. The case had to be remanded, however, because Franks retired while the case was on appeal and the Eleventh Circuit did not address whether the president's successor could be ordered to reinstate Lane.

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