Tenn. woman gets go-ahead to sue boss over firing

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Soon after Karen Cameron got married in August 2004, she received an unusual wedding gift from her boss — a pink slip.

Now four years later, a federal appeals court has decided that the former Tennessee county employee can pursue her First Amendment claim that she was fired for marrying into a family that includes her boss’s rivals.

In Cameron v. Grainger County, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s refusal to dismiss Cameron’s constitutional claims. Cameron claimed that Rhonda Reagan, clerk of the Grainger County Circuit Court, terminated her because of her marriage to Michael Cameron — a political rival of Reagan’s. Michael’s father, Earl, is also a political foe.

The 6th Circuit found Karen Cameron’s constitutional claim rooted in the First Amendment’s protection of intimate association. Though it’s not spelled out in the text as are the other First Amendment freedoms — religion, speech, press, assembly and petition — some courts have found that under the amendment, individuals have a right to associate with others to express political beliefs or engage in close relationships. Other courts have said that intimate-association claims are rooted in the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in NAACP v. Alabama that the First Amendment’s right to freedom of association protected NAACP members from harassment from Alabama state officials. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in the 1958 ruling that “compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute” a violation of the “freedom of association.”

In recognizing the importance of freedom of association, Harlan wrote for the Court:

“Effective advocacy of both public and private points of view, particularly controversial ones, is undeniably enhanced by group association, as this Court has more than once recognized by remarking upon the close nexus between the freedoms of speech and assembly. It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the ‘liberty’ assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech.”

Since the ruling in NAACP, courts have analyzed freedom-of-association claims as either expressive association or intimate association. Expressive association refers to individuals or groups gathering together to exercise their First Amendment freedoms of assembly, speech and/or religion. Intimate association refers to the freedom to enter into and maintain certain intimate human relationships free from intrusion by the government. Such intimate relationships protected by this freedom include marriage, the raising and education of children and cohabitation with one’s relatives.

It is this freedom that Karen Cameron asserts in her lawsuit.

Reagan has claimed that Cameron’s termination as deputy clerk had nothing to do with her marriage to a political foe. Instead, Reagan asserts, Karen’s situation could have led to a conflict of interest at the courthouse because criminal charges were pending against Michael Cameron. He was accused of aggravated assault against Karen while the two were dating. (He later pleaded guilty to assault.)

Cameron initially agreed to take a leave of absence but changed her mind when she found out that Reagan wanted her out until after the August 2006 election — which was two years away. Cameron refused because she would lose her insurance coverage.

The 6th Circuit ruled on April 16 that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to support Cameron’s intimate-association claim. In its per curiam opinion, the court found that “it was only after her marriage to Reagan’s political opponent that Reagan became concerned about the conflict to such an extent that a prolonged leave of absence was deemed necessary.”

The court continued: “More important, because the 2006 election had no logical relation to the conflict or the necessity of any leave of absence, Reagan’s reference to the election tends to establish that the real reason for Cameron’s termination was her marriage into a politically adverse family.”

The 6th Circuit asserted that intimate-association claims are covered by the First Amendment. Other federal appeals courts have grounded such claims in the due-process clause. For example, in its 1993 ruling Griffin v. Strong, the 10th Circuit found that the freedom of intimate association is a substantive due-process right. Still other courts have found — as a federal district court in Kentucky did in Marcum v. Catron (1999) — that the right to intimate associate is a “hybrid right” found in both the First and 14th Amendments.

Perhaps the 2nd Circuit expressed it most accurately in Adler v. Pataki (1999) in writing that “the source of the intimate association right has not been authoritatively determined.”

Whatever its constitutional moorings, the right of intimate association is a legal reality. Public officials must act cautiously when they dismiss employees because their spouses are political opponents. That’s a sure-fire lesson from the 6th Circuit in Cameron v. Grainger County.

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