Federal appeals panel upholds jury award in retaliation case

Tuesday, October 10, 2000

A federal appeals court panel has unanimously affirmed a jury verdict
in favor of a former Eldon, Mo., city clerk who alleged that city aldermen
fired her in retaliation for speaking about possible misconduct by the former
city administrator.

Laverne Belk, who began working as a city clerk in 1982, also served
as assistant to ex-city administrator James Link, receiving favorable job
ratings in that capacity.

In 1995, Belk saw a bill for heath insurance that she believed showed
that city employee Debra Carpenter was receiving benefits inappropriate to her
employment status. Belk sent Link a memo regarding these benefits, but Link
disregarded her complaints.

In October 1995, Belk complained in private to then-city alderman
Harold Dolby about rumors of an extramarital affair between Link and Carpenter.
Belk also complained that Carpenter was receiving benefits inappropriate to her
employment status.

One month later Link fired Belk from her position as assistant city
administrator. In April 1996, the board of aldermen also removed Belk from her
city clerk position.

Belk sued the city and four aldermen in federal court, contending that
city officials had fired her in retaliation for her speech to Dolby about Link
and Carpenter and that she also had suffered sex discrimination.

A jury ruled in favor of Belk on her First Amendment claim but
rejected the sex- discrimination claim.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals in Belk v. City of Eldon
affirmed the jury award.

The appeals court analyzed Belk’s First Amendment retaliation suit
under a test first articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1969 decision
Pickering v. Board of Educ.

To receive First Amendment protection under this test, it was
necessary that Belk’s speech touch on a matter of public concern and that her
free-speech interests trump her employer’s interests in efficiency.

The defendants argued that Belk could receive no First Amendment
protection because she did not speak on a matter of public concern for several
reasons, including:

Belk’s statements to Dolby were made in a private setting.

Belk was motivated by a desire to spread gossip and animosity
toward Link.

Belk’s statements were “purely job-related.”

The panel determined that Belk’s speech did touch on matters of public
concern. “Allegations of the misuse of public funds relate directly to
citizens’ interests as taxpayers,” the panel wrote in its Oct. 2 opinion.
“Speech that criticizes a public employer in his capacity as a public
official also addresses matters of public concern.”

The panel determined that Belk’s comments “implicated her
interests as a citizen-taxpayer by alleging the misuse of public funds.”
The panel also rejected the argument that Belk’s speech had to be made in a
public setting in order to be considered as related to a matter of public

The appeals court also rejected the defendants’ argument that the
city’s efficiency interests trumped Belk’s free-speech interests. The appeals
court determined, in fact, that the city defendants “failed to demonstrate
sufficient evidence of workplace disruption.”

The defendants had argued that the jury verdict should be overturned
because they were entitled to qualified immunity, not having violated any of
Belk’s clearly established constitutional rights.

The appeals court panel rejected the qualified-immunity defense,
writing: “As early as 1985, the Supreme Court had found a clear First
Amendment protection for public employees.”

Calls to the attorneys on both sides of the case were not

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