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Public employer? Beware retaliation against employee who testifies in civil rights case

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in Firing,Human Resources

Ordinarily, civil servants have qualified immunity for actions arising from their official duties as government workers. But punishing a subordinate for testifying in a civil rights lawsuit clearly destroys that immunity.

Recent case: Martha was an ad­­min­­istrative assistant for the Mount­­lake Terrace Police Depart­­ment, primarily performing clerical duties such as an­­swering the phone and making copies.

When a former police officer sued the department, alleging it violated his civil rights when he spoke out against the “war on drugs,” Martha received a subpoena to testify under oath about what she knew. She told the court that the assistant police chief, who recommended firing the officer, had a reputation as a “back stabber.”

Shortly after, the assistant chief told the police chief he thought Martha should be transferred and placed on probation. Soon, Martha found herself in a new job that re­­quired months of extra training. But just a few weeks later, the assistant chief recommended firing Martha for poor performance.

She sued, alleging that her termination was retaliation for testifying in a civil rights lawsuit. She added the assistant chief as a defendant. He claimed immunity.

The court rejected his request. It said that firing someone who testifies under subpoena in a civil rights suit violates that individual’s free speech rights. Because that concept is well accepted, the assistant chief couldn’t plead ignorance and wasn’t entitled to immunity. (Karl v. City of Mountlake Terrace, No. 11-35343, 9th Cir., 2012)

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