246 F.3d 1231 (9th Cir. 2001), 00-15269, Weeks v. Bayer

Docket Nº:00-15269
Citation:246 F.3d 1231
Party Name:GEORGE M. WEEKS, III, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. ROBERT BAYER, individually and in his capacity as Director, Nevada Department of Prisons, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:April 18, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

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246 F.3d 1231 (9th Cir. 2001)

GEORGE M. WEEKS, III, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

ROBERT BAYER, individually and in his capacity as Director, Nevada Department of Prisons, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 00-15269

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

April 18, 2001

Argued and Submitted March 14, 2001

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Peter C. Wetherall, Law Offices of Peter C. Wetherall, Reno, Nevada, for plaintiff-appellant George M. Weeks III.

Julie Slabaugh, Deputy Attorney General, Litigation Division, Office of the Attorney General, Carson City, Nevada, for defendant-appellee Robert Bayer.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Nevada; David Warner Hagen, District Judge, Presiding, D.C. No. CV-98-00354-DWH-PHA.

Before: John T. Noonan, M. Margaret McKeown and Kim McLane Wardlaw, Circuit Judges.

McKEOWN, Circuit Judge:

In its capacity as a public employer, the state bears special constitutional burdens. Notably, the First Amendment restricts the state's ability to fire employees who speak out on matters of public concern. But this doctrine is limited; after all, "the First Amendment does not require a public office to be run as a roundtable for employee complaints over internal office affairs." Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 149, 75 L.Ed. 2d 708, 103 S.Ct. 1684 (1983). Here, we must determine whether Mr. Weeks's single comment regarding the funding status of a government program, made in private and without further indicia of public concern--such as allegations of mismanagement or fraud, for instance, or an attempt to report the matter publicly--carries protected status. We conclude that it does not. We therefore affirm the district court's grant of judgment on the pleadings.

BACKGROUND

Beginning in July 1988, Plaintiff-Appellant George Weeks worked as an Assistant Director in the Nevada Department of Prisons (the "Department"). 1 He received "outstanding" performance evaluations from his various supervisors over the years, including Defendant-Appellee Robert Bayer.

In late October 1997, Weeks received an inquiry from a representative of the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Abuse ("BADA"), another Nevada state agency,

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regarding the status of the Department's inmate substance abuse and rehabilitation programs. According to the complaint, Weeks responded that the programs were "at risk of discontinuation due to defendant Bayer's delays in insuring and allotting funding for the programs." Weeks claims that his comments were meant "only to convey information relative to the status of certain prison programs" and, further, that they "were made out of a sense of obligation to keep BADA appraised as to the status of programs for which BADA was seeking financial contribution from the Nevada Department of Prisons."

One week later, Bayer fired Weeks. Weeks then filed suit, contending that the termination violated his First Amendment right to free speech. In his answer, Bayer denied the claims and then, in July 1998, moved for judgment on the pleadings. Weeks responded that his complaint was sufficient and made no attempt to amend it. In February 1999, the district court granted Bayer's motion for judgment on the pleadings, concluding that Weeks's speech did not relate to a matter of public concern. Only then did Weeks seek to amend his complaint. At the same time, he moved to reopen the judgment. The district court denied both motions, and this appeal followed.

We review de novo the district court's dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), Enron Oil Trading & Transp. Co. v. Walbrook Ins. Co., 132 F.3d 526, 528 (9th Cir. 1997), and the district court's First Amendment public concern analysis, Roe v. City of San Francisco, 109 F.3d 578, 584 (9th Cir. 1997). We review for abuse of discretion the district court's denial of Weeks's motion to reopen the judgment. Balla v. Idaho State Bd. of Corr., 869 F.2d 461, 464 (9th Cir. 1989). We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, and we affirm.

ANALYSIS

I. FIRST AMENDMENT CLAIM

To state a claim for unlawful retaliation in violation of the First Amendment, an employee must first demonstrate that the speech was "on a matter of public concern." Connick, 461 U.S. at 145. Unless the speech meets this threshold requirement, we need not balance the employee's speech interest against the employer's interest in efficiency, see Pickering v. Bd. of Educ., 391 U.S. 563, 568, 20 L.Ed. 2d 811, 88 S.Ct. 1731 (1968), nor need we evaluate the causal relationship between the speech and the adverse employment action, see Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 285-87, 50 L.Ed. 2d 471, 97 S.Ct. 568 (1977).

Analysis of public concern is not an exact science. Fortunately, we have avoided rigid multi-part tests that would shoehorn communication into ill-fitting categories. Rather, guided by the Supreme Court, we have focused on two general aspects of speech that indicate whether a statement relates to a matter of public concern. First and foremost, we consider the content of the speech. See Havekost v. United States Dep't of the Navy, 925 F.2d 316, 318 (9th Cir. 1991). When the employee addresses "'issues about which information is needed or appropriate to enable the members of society' to make informed decisions about the operation of their government," that speech falls squarely within the boundaries of public concern. McKinley v. City of Eloy, 705 F.2d 1110, 1114 (9th Cir. 1983) (quoting Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88, 102, 84 L.Ed. 1093, 60 S.Ct. 736 (1940)). Put slightly differently, "matter[s] of political, social, or other concern to the community" are protected. Gillette v. Delmore, 886 F.2d 1194, 1197 (9th Cir. 1989). So, for example, we have held that "misuse of public funds, wastefulness,

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and inefficiency in managing and operating government entities are matters of inherent public concern. Johnson v. Multnomah County, 48 F.3d 420, 425 (9th Cir. 1995). By contrast, this doctrine does not safeguard "purely private interest[s]," Havekost, 925 F.2d at 318, "individual personnel disputes," McKinley, 705 F.2d at 1114, or "the minutiae of workplace grievances," Havekost, 925 F.2d at 319.

In addition to examining the content of the speech, we also consider its "form[] and context." Connick, 461 U.S. at 147. Thus, we look to such factors as the public or private nature of the speech, id. at 148, and the speaker's motive, Havekost, 925 F.2d at 318. Although these factors must not be used as litmus tests, Berg v. Hunter, 854 F.2d 238, 242-43 (7th Cir. 1988)--after all, even a private complaint may relate to a matter of public concern, Givhan v. W. Line Consol. Sch. Dist., 439 U.S....

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