Garcetti strikes again: Ill. officer loses retaliation suit

Friday, June 1, 2007

A federal appeals court has rejected an Aurora, Ill., police investigator’s retaliation lawsuit, ruling he has no First Amendment claim because his speech was job-related within the meaning of a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Martin Sigsworth, a career officer, participated in a multi-jurisdictional task force formed to investigate gang activity. After a botched raid, Sigsworth became convinced that key targets of the raid had been tipped off in some capacity by somebody associated with the task force. He reported his suspicions to his chief of police, who told him to remain silent about his suspicions. A short time later, Sigsworth was removed from the task force and the related investigation. He also was denied a desired promotion to sergeant.

Sigsworth sued, claiming that he was retaliated against for speaking out against possible government corruption. A federal district court dismissed his claim, finding that he spoke more as an employee than as a citizen when he made the allegations. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on May 25 affirmed in Sigsworth v. City of Aurora.

The legal hurdle that Sigsworth could not clear was the Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos. In Garcetti, the Court ruled 5-4 that public employees generally do not have First Amendment protection for speech made at work pursuant to their official job duties. Before Garcetti, the courts would ask whether the employee’s speech addressed a matter of public importance — called public concern — and then balanced the employee’s free-speech interests against the employer’s interests in an efficient, undisrupted workplace.

The 7th Circuit noted that “Garcetti requires that before analyzing whether an employee’s speech is of public concern, a court must determine whether the employee was speaking ‘as a citizen’ or, by contrast, pursuant to his duties as a public employee.” The court reasoned that Sigsworth spoke as an employee when he spoke about possible corruption.

“Because Sigworth’s speech was part of the tasks he was employed to perform, he spoke not as a citizen but as a public employee, and that speech is not entitled to protection by the First Amendment,” the appeals court panel wrote.

“The 7th Circuit really had no choice but to rule the way it did,” said Sigsworth’s attorney, John P. DeRose. “The allegations made by my client were of very serious misconduct that jeopardized the safety of officers and the public. It is a sad state of affairs that an officer who spoke about such wrongdoing has no recourse and can be retaliated against without any recourse. But, that is the reach of Garcetti.


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