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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. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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