461 U.S. 138 (1983), 81-1251, Connick v. Myers

Docket Nº:No. 81-1251.
Citation:461 U.S. 138, 103 S.Ct. 1684, 75 L.Ed.2d 708
Party Name:Harry CONNICK, Individually and in His Capacity as District Attorney, etc., Petitioner, v. Sheila MYERS.
Case Date:April 20, 1983
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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461 U.S. 138 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 1684, 75 L.Ed.2d 708

Harry CONNICK, Individually and in His Capacity as District Attorney, etc., Petitioner,

v.

Sheila MYERS.

No. 81-1251.

United States Supreme Court.

April 20, 1983

Argued Nov. 8, 1982.

Former assistant district attorney brought civil rights action in which she contended that her employment was terminated because she exercised her constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Jack M. Gordon, J., 507 F.Supp. 752, held that attorney was entitled to reinstatement, back pay, and compensatory damages, and appeal was taken. The Court of Appeals, in an unpublished opinion, 654 F.2d 719, affirmed, and certiorari was granted. The Supreme Court, Justice White, held that discharge of former assistant district attorney did not violate attorney's constitutionally protected right of free speech.

Reversed.

Justice Brennan filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Marshall, Blackmun and Stevens joined.

[103 S.Ct. 1685] Syllabus[*]

SYLLABUS

Respondent was employed as an Assistant District Attorney in New Orleans with the responsibility of trying criminal cases. When petitioner District Attorney proposed to transfer respondent to prosecute cases in a different section of the criminal court, she strongly opposed the transfer, expressing her view to several of her supervisors, including petitioner. Shortly thereafter, she prepared a questionnaire that she distributed to the other Assistant District Attorneys in the office concerning office transfer policy, office morale, the need for a grievance committee, the level of confidence in supervisors, and whether employees felt pressured to work in political campaigns. Petitioner then informed respondent that she was being terminated for refusal to accept the transfer, and also told her that her distribution of the questionnaire was considered an act of insubordination. Respondent filed suit in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1976 ed., Supp. IV), alleging that she was wrongfully discharged because she had exercised her constitutionally protected right of free speech. The District Court agreed, ordered her reinstated, and awarded backpay, damages, and attorney's fees. Finding that the questionnaire, not the refusal to accept the transfer, was the real reason for respondent's termination, the court held that the questionnaire involved matters of public concern and that the State had not "clearly demonstrated" that the questionnaire interfered with the operation of the District Attorney's office. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Respondent's discharge did not offend the First Amendment. Pp. 1687-1693.

(a) In determining a public employee's rights of free speech, the problem is to arrive "at a balance between the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting on matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees." Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563, 568, 88 S.Ct. 1731, 1734, 20 L.Ed.2d 811. P. 1687.

(b) When a public employee speaks not as a citizen upon matters of public concern, but instead as an employee upon matters only of personal interest, absent the most unusual circumstances, a federal court is not

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the appropriate forum in which to review the wisdom of a personnel decision taken by a public agency allegedly in reaction [103 S.Ct. 1686] to the employee's behavior. Here, except for the question in respondent's questionnaire regarding pressure upon employees to work in political campaigns, the questions posed do not fall under the rubric of matters of "public concern." Pp. 1687-1691.

(c) The District Court erred in imposing an unduly onerous burden on the State to justify respondent's discharge by requiring it to "clearly demonstrate" that the speech involved "substantially interfered" with the operation of the office. The State's burden in justifying a particular discharge varies depending upon the nature of the employee's expression. P. 1691.

(d) The limited First Amendment interest involved here did not require petitioner to tolerate action that he reasonably believed would disrupt the office, undermine his authority, and destroy the close working relationships within the office. The question on the questionnaire regarding the level of confidence in supervisors was a statement that carried the clear potential for undermining office relations. Also, the fact that respondent exercised her rights to speech at the office supports petitioner's fears that the function of his office was endangered. And the fact that the questionnaire emerged immediately after a dispute between respondent and petitioner and his deputies, requires that additional weight be given to petitioner's view that respondent threatened his authority to run the office. Pp. 1691-1693.

654 F.2d 719 (CA5 1981), reversed.

COUNSEL

William F. Wessel argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief wasVictoria Lennox Bartels.

George M. Strickler, Jr., argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Ann Woolhandler and Michael G. Collins.*

* Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Mark C. Rosenblum, Nadine Strossen, and Charles S. Sims for the American Civil Liberties Union et al.; and by Robert H. Chanin, Laurence Gold, and Marsha S. Berzon for the National Education Association et al.

William F. Wessel, New Orleans, La., for petitioner.

George M. Strickler, Jr., New Orleans, La., for respondent.

OPINION

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Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563, 88 S.Ct. 1731, 20 L.Ed.2d 811 (1968), we stated that a public employee does not relinquish First Amendment rights to comment on matters of public interest by virtue of government employment. We also recognized that the State's interests as an employer in regulating the speech of its employees "differ significantly from those it possesses in connection with regulation of the speech of the citizenry in general." Id., at 568, 88 S.Ct., at 1734. The problem, we thought, was arriving "at a balance between the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees." Ibid. We return to this problem today and consider whether the First and Fourteenth Amendments prevent the discharge of a state employee for circulating a questionnaire concerning internal office affairs.

I

The respondent, Sheila Myers, was employed as an Assistant District Attorney in New Orleans for five and a half years. She served at the pleasure of petitioner Harry Connick, the District Attorney for Orleans Parish. During this period Myers competently performed her responsibilities of trying criminal cases.

In the early part of October, 1980, Myers was informed that she would be transferred to prosecute cases in a different section of the criminal court. Myers was strongly opposed to the proposed transfer1 and expressed her view to several of her supervisors, including Connick. Despite her objections, on October 6 Myers was notified that she was being transferred.

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Myers again spoke with Dennis Waldron, one of the first assistant district attorneys, expressing her reluctance to accept the transfer. A number of other office matters were [103 S.Ct. 1687] discussed and Myers later testified that, in response to Waldron's suggestion that her concerns were not shared by others in the office, she informed him that she would do some research on the matter.

That night Myers prepared a questionnaire soliciting the views of her fellow staff members concerning office transfer policy, office morale, the need for a grievance committee, the level of confidence in supervisors, and whether employees felt pressured to work in political campaigns. 2 Early the following morning, Myers typed and copied the questionnaire. She also met with Connick who urged her to accept the transfer. She said she would "consider" it. Connick then left the office. Myers then distributed the questionnaire to 15 assistant district attorneys. Shortly after noon, Dennis Waldron learned that Myers was distributing the survey. He immediately phoned Connick and informed him that Myers was creating a "mini-insurrection" within the office. Connick returned to the office and told Myers that she was being terminated because of her refusal to accept the transfer. She was also told that her distribution of the questionnaire was considered an act of insubordination. Connick particularly objected to the question which inquired whether employees "had confidence in and would rely on the word" of various superiors in the office, and to a question concerning pressure to work in political campaigns which he felt would be damaging if discovered by the press.

Myers filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, contending that her employment was wrongfully terminated because she had exercised her constitutionally-protected right of free speech. The District Court agreed, ordered Myers reinstated, and awarded backpay, damages, and

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attorney's fees. 507 F.Supp. 752 (E.D.La.1981). 3 The District Court found that although Connick informed Myers that she was being fired because of her refusal to accept a transfer, the facts showed that the questionnaire was the real reason for her termination. The court then proceeded to hold that Myers' questionnaire involved matters of public concern and that the...

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