Supreme Court Bears Good News for Whistleblowers

In Thursday’s unanimous Lane v. Franks decision, the Supreme Court decided that public employees are protected from retaliation when they testify in court about misconduct they observe on the job. Lane v. Franks, 134 S.Ct. 2369 (2014).

Edward Lane was a director of a program for underprivileged youth operated by Central Alabama Community College (CACC). As the director, he conducted an audit of the program’s expenses and found that an Alabama State Representative, Susan Schmitz, was on the payroll even though she was not doing any work for the program! Mr. Lane terminated Ms. Schmitz’s employment and soon thereafter, Ms. Schmitz was indicted on mail fraud and theft charges. Mr. Lane testified against Ms. Schmitz about why he fired Ms. Schmitz and Ms. Schmitz was ultimately convicted.

After he testified, Mr. Lane, along with 28 other employees were terminated. But a few days later, CACC’s president Steve Franks hired back everyone other than Mr. Lane and one other employee. Mr. Lane filed a lawsuit claiming that Mr. Franks had violated his First Amendment rights by firing him in retaliation for testifying against Ms. Schmitz.

Prior cases have called into question when First Amendment protections apply to public employees. In determining whether a public employee is protected under the First Amendment, courts first determine whether the employee spoke as a “citizen” on “a matter of public concern.” It was not Mr. Lane’s job to testify against Ms. Schmitz – he merely learned about the corruption she was involved in through his job. The Court rightly determined that testimony in a court proceeding is a “quintessential example of citizen speech.” The Court also decided that Mr. Lane’s testimony about “corruption in a public program and misuse of state funds” was clearly a matter of public concern. Finally, the Court decided that the CACC did not have any justification for treating Mr. Lane differently.

The Supreme Court’s ruling means that public employees who witness corruption at work will no longer be in the “impossible position” of being “torn between the obligation to testify truthfully and the desire to avoid retaliation and keep their jobs.” Now public employees who learn about corruption or criminal activity on the job and testify about that unlawful conduct are still protected by the First Amendment. Even though this case applies specifically to First Amendment protections for public employees, the Court emphasized the importance of whistleblowing and the value of encouraging this type of speech which will likely have ramifications for both public and private sector employees.

This is a win for public employees and the public at large who have a shared interest in exposing corruption in government.

July 7, 2014 Jean Krasilnikoff