Against Garcetti tide, panel reinstates public employee’s claim

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A New Mexico speech pathologist who filed a claim against her public school employer for the sake of her students has had her First Amendment retaliation claim reinstated by a federal appeals court.

A lower court had said Janet Reinhardt's First Amendment claim should be dismissed as work-related speech under the U.S. Supreme Court decision Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006). But a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously thought otherwise in a Feb. 16 ruling, showing that not all employees are necessarily “Garcettized” when they speak at work.

Reinhardt, who worked for the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education, told administrators she was not receiving accurate and timely lists of students who needed special-education services at Rio Grande High School, where she worked. Reinhardt contended that as a result, some special-ed students weren’t getting the extra instruction they needed and deserved under federal law, particularly the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

After complaining internally to no avail, in June 2005 she filed with attorney assistance an IDEA complaint with the New Mexico Public Education Department. That agency conducted an investigation and ordered school officials to clean up their act. According to Reinhardt, school officials then assigned her fewer students, refused her a raise and took other actions against her.

In June 2007, she filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging a violation of federal disability law and the First Amendment. The district court rejected her claims. Her First Amendment claim must fail, the district judge found, because her speech was job-related within the meaning of Garcetti.

On appeal, the 10th Circuit panel reversed the lower court in Reinhardt v. Albuquerque Public School Board of Education. The panel focused on two factors: (1) that Reinhardt’s job responsibilities did not include filing IDEA complaints, and (2) that she went outside her chain of command in filing the complaint with the help of an attorney. According to the panel, these factors showed that Reinhardt spoke more as a private citizen than as an employee.

“Ms. Reinhardt was not hired to ensure IDEA compliance at Albuquerque public schools,” Judge Paul J. Kelly wrote for the panel. “She was hired to provide speech and language services to special education students. Ms. Reinhardt’s consulting an attorney and filing the state complaint went well beyond her official responsibilities.”

The appeals panel expressed no view on whether Reinhardt’s First Amendment claim ultimately would prevail, as the lower court will have to consider whether she spoke on matter of public concern — as opposed to a personal employment matter — and whether her free-speech rights outweigh the school board’s right to an efficient, disruptive-free workplace.

But the 10th Circuit’s reinstatement of her claim makes it at least more likely that she will receive some form of legal redress. It also should provide a measure of comfort to many public employees who have felt the freezing effects of Garcetti v. Ceballos.

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