Constitutional Employment Rights: Court Finds that Public Employee Can Proceed With First Amendment Free Speech and Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Claims

Public employees have certain constitutionally protected rights which private employees do not have. In a recent case, Wood v. Bethlehem Area Vocational Technical School, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84504 (E. D. Pa. June 17, 2013) (Dalzell, J.), the Court found that a Plaintiff could proceed with free speech and due process claims against her former employer. In Wood, the Plaintiff alleged that her former employer, violated her rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments by changing her conditions of work and then firing her in retaliation for her public comments about potential asbestos exposure which had raised significant public concern, causing many members of the public to attend meetings of a Joint Operating Committee and spurring substantial media coverage. Initially, the Plaintiff was subject to disciplinary actions including a suspension without pay, her duties were significantly altered, her access to equipment was made more restrictive and she was given an unsatisfactory job performance evaluation. Eventually, the Plaintiff was fired because she allegedly violated the Internet use policy and performed her job unsatisfactorily.

In her First Amendment claim Plaintiff alleged that she was deprived of her rights to free speech, to petition the government for a redress of grievances and freedom of association in that she was fired in retaliation for engaging in protected First Amendment activity. The Court found that the Plaintiff could proceed with her claim because the speech was on a matter of public concern, the danger of asbestos contamination in a public school, and the employee’s interest in expressing herself was not outweighed by any injury the speech could cause to the interest of the State.

In her Fourteenth Amendment due process claim Plaintiff alleged that she was denied her rights under the Supreme Court’s Loudermill case which held that public employees who could only be discharged or cause had a Fourteenth Amendment due process right to a pre-termination hearing. In Wood, the Court found that during her Loudermill hearing Defendant gave her only nebulous information about her misconduct and did not point to a single specific instance of misconduct. The Court held that if true, these facts would show that the hearing did not meet the due process standards established in Loudermill

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Filed under Constitutional Employment RIghts, Employment Law

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