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Vaughn v. Lawrenceburg Power Sys. - 269 F.3d 703 (6th Cir. 2001)


On appeal, the circuit court reviews a grant of summary judgment de novo, using the same Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)standard as the district court. The moving party has the initial burden of proving that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The court considers all facts and inferences drawn from the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. However, if the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. 

In order to satisfy rational basis scrutiny, a rule interfering with the right of marital association under the First Amendment must advance a legitimate governmental interest and must not be an unreasonable means of advancing that legitimate governmental interest. 

For a public employee to establish a prima facie case of First Amendment retaliation under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, he must demonstrate: (1) that he was engaged in a constitutionally protected activity; (2) that the defendant's adverse action caused him to suffer an injury that would likely chill a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in that activity; and (3) that the adverse action was motivated at least in part as a response to the exercise of his constitutional rights. 


Plaintiffs Keith Vaughn and Jennifer Vaughn, former employees of defendant Lawrenceburg Power System ("LPS"), filed an action in Tennessee state court alleging that their terminations from LPS in February 1998 violated their rights under the United States Constitution, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and under the Tennessee Human Rights Act (THRA). Specifically, the Vaughns objected to LPS's "anti-nepotism" policy, which required the resignation of one spouse in the event two employees marry. They claim this policy was unconstitutional under  rational basis or strict scrutiny review. They also asserted claims of retaliatory discharge under the THRA and the First Amendment. The magistrate judge initially evaluating their complaint recommended dismissing all claims. The Vaughns objected to certain aspects of this report. The district court adopted the magistrate judge's report in full, and granted summary judgment to LPS in a one-page order in February 2000. The Vaughns filed a motion to alter or amend judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59. The district court was unpersuaded and denied this motion by marginal order in March 2000. The Vaughns timely appealed both decisions. 


Did the rule of exogamy in LPS’ anti-nepotism policy violate the fundamental right of marriage? Did the district court err in granting summary judgment in favor of the employer on Keith Vaughn's claim of retaliatory discharge under the First Amendment?


No and Yes.


The court concluded that the rule of exogamy in LPS’ anti-nepotism policy did not violate the fundamental right of marriage. The court reasoned that LPS had demonstrated that its exogamy rule advanced a legitimate governmental interest. Specifically, a government employer may have a legitimate concern about the inherent loyalty that one spouse will show to another, making discipline more difficult. The court found that the conduct that led to one employee's firing was his unwillingness to agree fully with the policy, which could be interpreted as protected by the First Amendment. Thus, the court concluded that since termination would be enough to chill First Amendment rights, and the termination was a consequence of the protected conduct, a prima facie case of retaliatory discharge was stated.

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