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COA: Firefighter's e-mail didn't harm department

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A firefighter shouldn't have been fired for his e-mail commenting on the financial situation of the township's fire department because the e-mail didn't impact the effectiveness of the department, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today. The appellate court found the trial court also erred in ruling that municipality liability couldn't be established based on the conduct of the firefighter chief.

In Bradley J. Love v. Robert Rehfus, individually and in his capacity as fire chief of the Sugar Creek Township Fire Department, and Sugar Creek Township, No. 30A01-0905-CV-250, volunteer and part-time firefighter Bradley J. Love appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of fire chief Robert Rehfus and Sugar Creek Township in Love's suit following his termination with the department. The trial court ruled as a matter of law that Love didn't engage in protected First Amendment activity.

Love was fired by Rehfus after he learned about an e-mail Love sent from his personal e-mail account on his home computer to people affiliated with the New Palestine Cadet Football League. In the e-mail, Love explained his support for volunteer firefighter Bob Boyer, who was running for township trustee against incumbent C.O. Montgomery. Love's e-mail said officers had been given SUVs, which they drove all over the state, and don't respond to emergency runs after 4 p.m. He also discussed the township's tax rate and firefighter personnel.

Rehfus told Love in a letter he was fired because he lied in the e-mail, which is conduct unbecoming firefighter, and failed to be truthful. Rehfus and many of the firefighters supported Montgomery for re-election.

People who work for the government are still citizens and as long as they speak as a citizen about matters of public concern, they must face only those speech restrictions that are necessary for their employers to operate effectively and efficiently, wrote Judge Patricia Riley.

Using Pickering v. Bd. Of Ed. Of Township High School Dist., 205 Will Cty., 391 U.S. 563, 568, 88 S. Ct. 1731, 20 L.Ed.2d 811 (1968), and City of Kokomo v. Kern, 8520 N.E.2d 623 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006), the appellate court concluded the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Caselaw says if no damage is proven, then the statements may be protected even if they are false, Judge Riley wrote.

"Overall, while the specific impact of the speech weighs more heavily in favor of the government entity when paramilitary organizations are involved because of the public safety implications, here, we cannot say that Love's e-mail impacted the operational effectiveness of the fire department," she wrote. "There is a complete lack of evidence suggesting intra-department disruption or any other actual or significant harm to the fire department. In absence of any evidenced harm, we do not need to evaluate whether Love's statements were false and recklessly made and whether this warrants the denial of First Amendment protection."

The Court of Appeals also held Sugar Creek Township could be held liable because the decision to fire Love was made by a policy-maker of the fire department. At the time he was fired, Love was on probation for unrelated matters and Rehfus had final authority to terminate Love. His decision represented county policy and gave rise to municipal liability.

The case was remanded for further proceedings.

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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