Tenn. man’s complaints about co-worker not protected speech

Monday, October 8, 2012

A former garbage-truck driver for the city of Franklin, Tenn., had no First Amendment right to report the allegedly violent conduct of his co-worker, a federal judge has ruled.

Ruben B. Pruitt Jr. worked as a driver/operator for Franklin’s Solid Waste Department. In June 2010, while working with his partner, who is identified in court documents only as Mr. Allocco, Pruitt contended that Allocco flew into a violent rage and began beating the side of the truck.

Pruitt reported the incident to his supervisors, but, according to Pruitt, he was fired in July 2010 after his employer accused him of filing a false statement about a co-worker.

Pruitt then sued in federal court, contending that the city had retaliated against him for his protected speech about the bad conduct of a co-worker. The city countered that Pruitt had not engaged in any protected speech.

U.S. District Judge Todd J. Campbell ruled in favor of the city in Pruitt v. City of Franklin. In his Oct. 5 opinion, Campbell said Pruitt had failed to speak on a matter of public concern. Public employees alleging violations of their free-speech rights must show their speech addresses matters of public concern or importance.

Campbell determined Pruitt’s speech was an internal personnel dispute, reflecting his “personal concerns” with another employee, and was not a matter of larger concern to the community.

Campbell also noted that Pruitt failed to show his speech was made as a citizen instead of as an employee. In its 2006 decision Garcetti v. Ceballos, the U.S. Supreme Court explained that public employees not only must address matters of public concern but also must show they engaged in speech as a citizen rather than as an employee. The Court explained that public employees have no First Amendment protection for speech “made pursuant to their official job duties.”

Pruitt’s speech, Campbell said, was made as part of “his official responsibilities” and thus failed the Garcetti test.

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