[UPDATED: 6/21 9:03 p.m.: Case number corrected]
WASHINGTON, D.C. - (Mealey's) A government employer's
actions alleged to be retaliatory are not limited by the First Amendment's
petition clause unless the employee's petition is related to a matter of public
concern, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 20th, vacating a ruling by the
Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (Borough of Duryea, Pennsylvania, et al.
v. Charles J. Guarnieri, (lexis.com subscribers may access Supreme Court briefs for this case)
"If the Petition Clause were to apply even where matters
of public concern are not involved, that would be unnecessary, or even
disruptive, when there is already protection for the rights of public employees
to file grievances and to litigate. The government can and often does
adopt statutory and regulatory mechanisms to protect the rights of employees
against improper retaliation or discipline, while preserving important
government interests. . . . Employees who sue under federal and state
employment laws often benefit from generous and quite detailed antiretaliation
provisions. . . . These statutory protections are subject to
legislative revision and can be designed for the unique needs of State, local,
or Federal Governments, as well as the special circumstances of particular
governmental offices and agencies. The Petition Clause is not an
instrument for public employees to circumvent these legislative enactments when
pursuing claims based on ordinary workplace grievances," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy
wrote for the majority.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader
Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel Anthony Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor and
Elena Kagan joined in the opinion.
Justice Clarence Thomas filed an opinion concurring in
the judgment but noting that he has serious doubts about whether lawsuits
qualify as "petitions" within the original meaning of the petition clause of
the First Amendment.
Justice Antonin Scalia filed an opinion concurring in the
judgment in part and dissenting in part. He, too, opined that it was
doubtful that a lawsuit was a constitutionally protected "petition."
However, he also disagreed with the majority's decision to treat the petition
clause and the speech clause identically in cases of public employment.
Charles J. Guarnieri sued Duryea Borough, the Borough
Council, Council President Ann Dommes, Borough Secretary Lois Morreale and six
Borough Council members in connection with his dismissal from his position as
police chief in February 2003. Guarnieri filed a grievance, which led to
arbitration, and he was reinstated. When he returned to work in January
2005, however, the Borough Council issued 11 "directives" stating what he must
do and could not do on the job. Guarnieri filed another grievance,
which led to another arbitration, and an arbitrator directed the borough to
modify or abandon some of the directives. Further disputes between the
parties arose, and Guarnieri sued, alleging that the directives and the
withholding of his overtime constituted retaliation for his having filed - and
won - the 2003 grievance.
A jury in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District
of Pennsylvania found for Guarnieri on two of his three retaliation claims, for
withholding the overtime and issuing the directives, and awarded him $45,358 in
compensatory damages. The jury also awarded a total of $52,000 in
punitive damages - $3,000 against each individual defendant for issuing the
directives and $3,500 against each individual for the overtime. The trial
court judge denied the defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law and
for a new trial, and they appealed on several issues, including that the
evidence did not support a finding of punitive damages.
The Third Circuit vacated the punitive damages award but
otherwise upheld the jury's verdict on the merits and remanded the case to the
District Court for a recalculation of attorney fees. The defendants
petitioned the U.S.
[Editor's Note: Full coverage will be in the July
2011 issue. In the meantime, the order is available at www.mealeysonline.com or
by calling the Customer Support Department at 1-800-833-9844. Document
#73-110708-001Z. For all of your legal news needs, please visit www.lexisnexis.com/mealeys.]
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