Federal appeals court reinstates ex-jailer’s First Amendment retaliation suit

Monday, February 14, 2000

A former Loudon County, Tenn., jailer who was fired from her job after her husband unsuccessfully ran for sheriff can proceed with her First Amendment retaliation lawsuit, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Wanda Sowards claimed her 1995 termination by Sheriff Timothy Guider after the 1994 sheriff’s election violated her First Amendment rights. She sued both Guider and the county in federal court.

A federal district court dismissed Sowards’ claim, finding that no juror could determine that Guider’s decision to fire Sowards was substantially motivated by her exercise of her First Amendment rights of political and intimate association.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in Sowards v. Loudoun County.

To establish a First Amendment retaliation claim, a public employee must show that:

  • She engaged in conduct protected by the First Amendment.
  • The defendant took an adverse action (i.e. termination, demotion) against her.

  • A causal connection existed between her protected speech and the defendant’s adverse action.

  • The 6th Circuit in its Feb. 8 opinion determined that Sowards was exercising her rights of political and intimate association. “The right of political association is a well-established right under the First Amendment,” the court wrote. The court determined that Sowards was exercising that right when she supported her husband in his campaign for Loudon County sheriff.

    The appeals court also determined that Sowards exercised a First Amendment right of intimate association with her husband. “Sowards has the right to associate intimately with her husband, and her marriage relationship is protected from undue interference by the state,” the court wrote.

    Because Sowards clearly suffered an adverse action, the court devoted the bulk of its legal analysis to the “causal connection” requirement.

    The defendants argued that Guider fired Sowards not because of who her husband was, but because she failed to serve an outstanding warrant for burglary on a person who was brought to the jail on a DUI charge.

    However, the 6th Circuit noted that other employees who failed to serve outstanding warrants were not discharged. “Because there is evidence that she was treated differently than other officers who had made similar mistakes and that she was terminated based on only one mistake, Sowards has provided sufficient evidence that her association with her husband substantially motivated Guider to terminate her,” the court wrote.

    The defendants also argued that, even if a causal connection could be established, the sheriff could legally fire her because of her political affiliation.

    In its 1976 decision Elrod v. Burns, the U.S. Supreme Court established the rule that certain public employees in policymaking positions may be dismissed on the basis of their political affiliations without running afoul of the First Amendment.

    However, Sowards asserted that her position as jailer did not “involve any managerial responsibilities, any policymaking or involvement in political or party decisionmaking.”

    The 6th Circuit cited the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois in which the high court ruled that political considerations were not appropriate for employment decisions regarding prison guards.

    The appeals court sent the case back down to the lower court to allow Sowards to proceed with her First Amendment retaliation lawsuit.

    Peter Alliman, Sowards’ attorney, declined to comment on the record about the decision. A call to Dean Farmer, the defendants’ attorney, was not returned.