The U.S. Supreme Court on June 20, 2014 decided the case of Lane v. Franks, and made a ruling that the First Amendment protected an Alabama community college worker, who was fired after testifying against a former state legislator.
In a unanimous decision, the high court held that Edward Lane, the former director of a program for at-risk children at Central Alabama Community College, should not have been denied First Amendment protection for subpoenaed testimony he gave in criminal fraud cases against former Alabama state Sen. Suzanne Schmitz.
The justices reversed a lower court, which had held that Lane’s testimony was part of his official duties as a public employee, and as such, was not protected speech.
Writing on behalf of the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that Lane’s testimony during Schmitz’s trials was “clearly” protected speech made by a citizen on a matter of public concern, even though Lane discovered the information he testified on while working as a public employee.
“Sworn testimony in judicial proceedings is a quintessential example of speech as a citizen for a simple reason: Anyone who testifies in court bears an obligation to the court, and society at large, to tell the truth,” Sotomayor wrote. Sotomayor went on to insist that when a public employee testifies about possible corruption of public officials, the First Amendment protects them against being fired in retaliation, and that otherwise the citizen would have to know they would lose their job for truthful testimony that exposed corruption.
Lane’s First Amendment retaliation claims stemmed from a fraud case brought by a federal prosecutor against Schmitz, who was accused of arranging and concealing a no-show job for herself at the Community Intensive Training for Youth Program, for which Lane served as director. The Schmitz case was part of a broader corruption scandal in Alabama’s two-year community college system. State legislators eventually enacted comprehensive ethics laws, and federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against 18 people in the wake of the scandal. A reporter for The Birmingham News also won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for playing a role in uncovering the corruption. Plainly, without the courageous testimony of whistleblowers like Mr. Lane, none of this would have come to light.
This ruling signals courts in all 50 states, including California, that whistleblowers, whether employed by private employers, or public entities, are entitled to job protection for the important work they do in uncovering fraud–whether public or private.
If you have a case involving whistleblower complaints, please contact our office for a free, initial consultation, which of course will be kept in the highest confidence by our staff and attorneys.