Public-employee petitions must address public concerns, high court rules

Monday, June 20, 2011

Public employees who allege that their government employers have infringed on their First Amendment freedom to petition the government over grievances must show that their petitions address matters of public, not private, concern, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri.

The Court said public employees cannot “evade the rule [for speech claims] … by wrapping their speech in the mantle of the Petition Clause.”

First Amendment jurisprudence requires public employees asserting free-speech claims to show that their speech addresses matters of public importance, the term of art being “public concern.” Speech on private personnel or employment matters often doesn’t rise to the level of a public concern.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in Duryea, Pa., police chief Charles J. Guarnieri Jr.’s lawsuit against the borough that “a public employee who has petitioned the government through a formal mechanism such as the filing of a lawsuit or grievance is protected under the Petition Clause from retaliation for that activity, even if the petition concerns a matter of private concern.”

The interesting legal issue arose out of a lengthy dispute between Duryea city government and its police chief. After borough officials fired him, Guarnieri successfully obtained reinstatement after filing a grievance that proceeded to arbitration. When he was back in his position, city leaders imposed a series of directives upon him that he said he considered onerous and unfair. He filed a lawsuit, contending in part that the borough, the borough’s council and individual council members had violated his petition right. A jury ruled in his favor and the 3rd Circuit upheld part of the jury’s award.

The city appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that Guarnieri’s First Amendment petition claims should be rejected because they arose out of a private grievance not touching on matters of public concern. The Supreme Court took the case, presumably because other circuit courts of appeals had disagreed with the 3rd Circuit and ruled that the public-concern requirement applied not only to free-speech claims but also to petition claims by public employees.

Writing for the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the borough. He found no reason to treat freedom-to-petition claims by government employees differently from public employees’ free-speech claims.

“Petitions, no less than speech, can interfere with the efficient and effective operation of the government,” Kennedy wrote. “When a petition takes the form of a lawsuit against the government employer, it may be particularly disruptive.”

Kennedy held that existing laws often will suffice to protect employees who are retaliated against for filing petitions. He made a similar claim when he wrote the Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), an oft-criticized ruling that limited public employees’ free-speech rights.

Kennedy concluded that the right of petition “is not a right to transform everyday employment disputes into matters for constitutional litigation in a federal forum.”

In his partial dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said the Court had erred in importing the public-concern requirement to petition claims by public employees. Relying on history, Scalia noted that most petition claims in Colonial times involved private disputes.

“The text of the Petition Clause does not distinguish petitions of public concern from petitions of private concern,” he added.

Rather, Scalia said, the rule should be that “the Petition Clause protects public employees against retaliation for filing petitions unless those petitions are addressed to the government in its capacity as the petitioners’ employer, rather than in its capacity as their sovereign.”

Justice Clarence Thomas also voted not to use the public-concern requirement for petition claims in his separate concurring opinion.

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