Lane v. Franks

Justia Summary

Lane, Director of CITY, a program for underprivileged youth operated by Central Alabama Community College (CACC), discovered that Schmitz, a state representative on CITY’s payroll, had not been reporting for work. Lane terminated her employment. Federal authorities later indicted Schmitz on charges of mail fraud and theft concerning a program receiving federal funds. Lane testified, under subpoena, regarding the events that led to Schmitz’s termination. Schmitz was convicted. Meanwhile, CITY experienced significant budget shortfalls. CACC’s president, Franks, terminated Lane and 28 others, citing those shortfalls. Franks rescinded all but two (Lane and another) of the terminations days later. Lane sued Franks in his individual and official capacities under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging retaliation for testifying against Schmitz. The district court granted Franks summary judgment, finding the individual-capacity claims were barred by qualified immunity and the official-capacity claims barred by the Eleventh Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, reasoning that Lane acted pursuant to his official duties when he investigated and terminated Schmitz. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed in part, first holding that Lane’s sworn testimony outside the scope of his ordinary job duties was protected by the First Amendment. Lane’s testimony was speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern. The critical question is whether the speech at issue is itself ordinarily within the scope of an employee’s duties, not whether it merely concerns those duties. Corruption in a public program and misuse of state funds involve matters of significant public concern; the form and context of the speech, sworn testimony in a judicial proceeding, fortify that conclusion. There is no government interest that favors Franks: there was no evidence that Lane’s testimony was false or erroneous or that Lane unnecessarily disclosed confidential information. Franks is entitled to qualified immunity in his individual capacity. Based on existing Eleventh Circuit precedent, Franks reasonably could have believed that a government employer could fire an employee because of testimony given outside the scope of his ordinary job responsibilities.