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Justices find email is constitutionally protected speech

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A trial court erred in granting summary judgment to a fire chief and township in a firefighter’s suit following his termination by the chief for sending a personal, political email that the chief believed contained false statements of fact. The firefighter’s email was actually constitutionally protected speech, the Indiana Supreme Court held Thursday.

Bradley Love, a volunteer and part-time firefighter, responded on his personal email account to an email he received regarding the candidate he was supporting for Sugar Creek Township trustee. In the email sent to a few people, Love claimed the Sugar Creek Fire Department has given new sport utility vehicles to lieutenants and captains, and they drive them all over the state; the fire department doesn’t make runs after 4 p.m.; and other claims regarding the fire department.

Fire chief Robert Rehfus was forwarded the email and decided to fire Love because he claimed it contained false statements of fact. Rehfus was supporting a different candidate for trustee.

Love filed a suit under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 against Rehfus, individually and in his official capacity, and against the Sugar Creek Township arguing his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed.

In Bradley J. Love v. Robert Rehfus, et al., No. 30S01-1004-CV-162, the justices reversed the trial court, finding that Love’s email had constitutional protections under the test set forth in Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968) and its progeny. There were no genuine issues of material fact as to the facts considered under the Pickering balance – that the public employee was speaking as a citizen and speaking on a matter of public concern – and Love’s speech was protected public-employee speech under the Garcetti-Connick-Pickering test, wrote Justice Frank Sullivan.

The defendants didn’t show that Love’s email had any potential to create difficulties maintaining discipline or loyalty or interfered with working relationships in the fire department. Also, nothing suggested that writing and sending the email interfered with Love’s ability to perform his job or the regular operation of the department. The email can’t be considered a personal attack on Rehfus because it doesn’t reference him by name or position, Justice Sullivan continued.

“The government was not justified in treating Love different from any other member of the general public,” he wrote.

Love argued that the township could be liable for Rehfus’ actions based on Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469 (1986), because Rehfus had final policymaking authority for the township. The justices found summary judgment in favor of either party on Love’s claim of municipal liability under Section 1983 is inappropriate. An inquiry needs to be made as to whether Rehfus had final policymaking authority regarding the employment of part-time, volunteer firefighters, not whether he was the final policymaking authority with regard to all employment matters for the township or within the department.

The justices ordered on remand that the trial court determine who the final policymaker was, and if it wasn’t Rehfus, determine whether that official regulated to Rehfus the relevant final policymaking authority.

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  1. Why in the world would someone need a person to correct a transcript when a realtime court reporter could provide them with a transcript (rough draft) immediately?

  2. If the end result is to simply record the spoke word, then perhaps some day digital recording may eventually be the status quo. However, it is a shallow view to believe the professional court reporter's function is to simply report the spoken word and nothing else. There are many aspects to being a professional court reporter, and many aspects involved in producing a professional and accurate transcript. A properly trained professional steno court reporter has achieved a skill set in a field where the average dropout rate in court reporting schools across the nation is 80% due to the difficulty of mastering the necessary skills. To name just a few "extras" that a court reporter with proper training brings into a courtroom or a deposition suite; an understanding of legal procedure, technology specific to the legal profession, and an understanding of what is being said by the attorneys and litigants (which makes a huge difference in the quality of the transcript). As to contracting, or anti-contracting the argument is simple. The court reporter as governed by our ethical standards is to be the independent, unbiased individual in a deposition or courtroom setting. When one has entered into a contract with any party, insurance carrier, etc., then that reporter is no longer unbiased. I have been a court reporter for over 30 years and I echo Mr. Richardson's remarks that I too am here to serve.

  3. A competitive bid process is ethical and appropriate especially when dealing with government agencies and large corporations, but an ethical line is crossed when court reporters in Pittsburgh start charging exorbitant fees on opposing counsel. This fee shifting isn't just financially biased, it undermines the entire justice system, giving advantages to those that can afford litigation the most. It makes no sense.

  4. "a ttention to detail is an asset for all lawyers." Well played, Indiana Lawyer. Well played.

  5. I have a appeals hearing for the renewal of my LPN licenses and I need an attorney, the ones I have spoke to so far want the money up front and I cant afford that. I was wondering if you could help me find one that takes payments or even a pro bono one. I live in Indiana just north of Indianapolis.

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