Federal appeals panel rejects retaliation claim of Florida woman

Tuesday, May 23, 2000

A former employee of the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security did not state a First Amendment claim when she alleged that she was the object of departmental retaliation, a federal appeals court panel has ruled.

Janet Maggio, a former customer-service specialist, alleged in her 1998 federal lawsuit that she was retaliated against after she testified on behalf of her former supervisor at the latter’s grievance hearings. Maggio claimed that six upper-level department employees afterward retaliated against her, in part by not granting her reasonable accommodation of her visual disability.

Maggio’s lawsuit stated a First Amendment retaliation claim along with disability- discrimination claims under both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Maggio has extremely poor vision and had requested that the department accommodate her impairment.

In 1999, a federal judge dismissed Maggio’s retaliation claim, saying that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. (In civil rights lawsuits, individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity if they can show that they have not violated any clearly established constitutional or statutory rights.)

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court in Maggio v. Sipple, although for different reasons.

According to the unanimous appeals court panel, Maggio’s retaliation claim failed because her speech was not related to a matter of public concern, and, therefore, her free-speech rights did not outweigh the employer’s interest in workplace efficiency.

Maggio spoke more as an employee than as a citizen when she testified at the closed grievance hearings, the panel determined in its May 17 opinion.

“Helping one’s supervisor defend a charge of insubordination and gain reinstatement would curry the favor of one’s supervisor, or improve the conditions of her employment to some extent, and thus further Maggio’s personal interest,” the panel wrote.

The panel noted that she “related her concerns to official administrative bodies but not to the public.”

Maggio argued that the 11th Circuit should follow its 1994 decision in Tindal v. Montgomery County Commission, in which an employee who testified in a race- and sex- discrimination lawsuit on behalf of a fellow employee was found to have spoken on issues of public concern.

However, the panel in Maggio’s case noted that the speech at issue in Tindal took place in a public forum, a federal district court proceeding — rather than in an administrative grievance hearing.

“For all of these reasons, we conclude that Maggio did not speak primarily as a citizen on behalf of the public but instead spoke primarily as an employee upon matters of personal interest,” the panel wrote.

The panel also noted that even if Maggio had raised an issue of public concern, the defendants were still entitled to qualified immunity because they had not violated any clearly established constitutional rights.

The attorneys who handled the case could not be reached for comment.