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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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