Waters v. Churchill

Decision Date31 May 1994
Docket NumberNo. 92-1450.,92-1450.
Citation511 U.S. 661
PartiesWATERS et al. v. CHURCHILL et al.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court




O'Connor, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Souter and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Souter, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 682. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Kennedy and Thomas, JJ., joined, post, p. 686. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Blackmun, J., joined, post, p. 694.

Lawrence A. Manson argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was Donald J. McNeil.

Richard H. Seamon argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Hunger, Acting Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, Barbara L. Herwig, and Robert D. Kamenshine.

John H. Bisbee argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief was Barry Nakell.*

Justice O'Connor announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which The Chief Justice, Justice Souter, and Justice Ginsburg join.

In Connick v. Myers, 461 U. S. 138 (1983), we set forth a test for determining whether speech by a government employee may, consistently with the First Amendment, serve as a basis for disciplining or discharging that employee. In this case, we decide whether the Connick test should be applied to what the government employer thought was said, or to what the trier of fact ultimately determines to have been said.


This case arises out of a conversation that respondent Cheryl Churchill had on January 16, 1987, with Melanie Perkins-Graham. Both Churchill and Perkins-Graham were nurses working at McDonough District Hospital; Churchill was in the obstetrics department, and Perkins-Graham was considering transferring to that department. The conversation took place at work during a dinner break. Petitioners heard about it and fired Churchill, allegedly because of it. There is, however, a dispute about what Churchill actually said, and therefore about whether petitioners were constitutionally permitted to fire Churchill for her statements.

The conversation was overheard in part by two other nurses, Mary Lou Ballew and Jean Welty, and by Dr. Thomas Koch, the clinical head of obstetrics. A few days later, Ballew told Cynthia Waters, Churchill's supervisor, about the incident. According to Ballew, Churchill took "`the cross trainee into the kitchen for . . . at least 20 minutes to talk about Waters and how bad things are in obstetrics in general.' " 977 F. 2d 1114, 1118 (CA7 1992). Ballew said that Churchill's statements led Perkins-Graham to no longer be interested in switching to the department. Supplemental App. of Defendants-Appellees in No. 91-2288 (CA7), p. 60.

Shortly after this, Waters met with Ballew a second time for confirmation of Ballew's initial report. Ballew said that Churchill "was knocking the department" and that "in general Churchill was saying what a bad place obstetrics is to work." Ballew said she heard Churchill say Waters "was trying to find reasons to fire her." Ballew also said Churchill described a patient complaint for which Waters had supposedly wrongly blamed Churchill. Id., at 67-68.

Waters, together with petitioner Kathleen Davis, the hospital's vice president of nursing, also met with PerkinsGraham, who told them that Churchill "had indeed said unkind and inappropriate negative things about Waters." Id., at 228. Also, according to Perkins-Graham, Churchill mentioned a negative evaluation that Waters had given Churchill, which arose out of an incident in which Waters had cited Churchill for an insubordinate remark. Ibid. The evaluation stated that Churchill "`promotes an unpleasant atmosphere and hinders constructive communication and cooperation,' " 977 F. 2d, at 1118, and "`exhibits negative behavior towards Waters and Waters' leadership through her actions and body language' "; the evaluation said Churchill's work was otherwise satisfactory, id., at 1116. Churchill allegedly told Perkins-Graham that she and Waters had discussed the evaluation, and that Waters "wanted to wipe the slate clean . . . but Churchill thought this wasn't possible." Supplemental App. of Defendants-Appellees in No. 91-2288, at 228. Churchill also allegedly told Perkins-Graham "that just in general things were not good in OB and hospital administration was responsible." Id., at 229. Churchill specifically mentioned Davis, saying Davis "was ruining MDH." Ibid. Perkins-Graham told Waters that she knew Davis and Waters "could not tolerate that kind of negativism." Ibid.

Churchill's version of the conversation is different. For several months, Churchill had been concerned about the hospital's "cross-training" policy, under which nurses from one department could work in another when their usual location was overstaffed. Churchill believed this policy threatened patient care because it was designed not to train nurses but to cover staff shortages, and she had complained about this to Davis and Waters. According to Churchill, the conversation with Perkins-Graham primarily concerned the crosstraining policy. 977 F. 2d, at 1118. Churchill denies that she said some of what Ballew and Perkins-Graham allege she said. She does admit she criticized Davis, saying her staffing policies threatened to "ruin" the hospital because they "`seemed to be impeding nursing care.' " Ibid. She claims she actually defended Waters and encouraged Perkins-Graham to transfer to obstetrics. Ibid.

Koch's and Welty's recollections of the conversation match Churchill's. Id., at 1122. Davis and Waters, however, never talked to Koch or Welty about this, and they did not talk to Churchill until the time they told her she was fired. Moreover, Churchill claims, Ballew was biased against Churchill because of an incident in which Ballew apparently made an error and Churchill had to cover for her. Brief for Respondents 9, n. 12.

After she was discharged, Churchill filed an internal grievance. The president of the hospital, petitioner Stephen Hopper, met with Churchill in regard to this and heard her side of the story. App. to Pet. for Cert. 75-77. He then reviewed Waters' and Davis' written reports of their conversations with Ballew and Perkins-Graham, and had Bernice Magin, the hospital's vice president of human resources, interview Ballew one more time. Supplemental App. of Defendants-Appellees in No. 91-2288, at 108, 139-142. After considering all this, Hopper rejected Churchill's grievance.

Churchill then sued under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U. S. C. § 1983, claiming that the firing violated her First Amendment rights because her speech was protected under Connick v. Myers, 461 U. S. 138 (1983). In May 1991, the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois granted summary judgment to petitioners. The court held that neither version of the conversation was protected under Connick: Regardless of whose story was accepted, the speech was not on a matter of public concern, and even if it was on a matter of public concern, its potential for disruption nonetheless stripped it of First Amendment protection. Therefore, the court held, management could fire Churchill for the conversation with impunity. App. to Pet. for Cert. 45-49.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed. 977 F. 2d 1114 (1992). The court held that Churchill's speech, viewed in the light most favorable to her, was protected speech under the Connick test: It was on a matter of public concern—"the hospital's alleged violation of state nursing regulations as well as the quality and level of nursing care it provides its patients," id., at 1122—and it was not disruptive, id., at 1124.

The court also concluded that the inquiry must turn on what the speech actually was, not on what the employer thought it was. "If the employer chooses to discharge the employee without sufficient knowledge of her protected speech as a result of an inadequate investigation into the employee's conduct," the court held, "the employer runs the risk of eventually being required to remedy any wrongdoing whether it was deliberate or accidental." Id., at 1127 (footnote omitted).

We granted certiorari, 509 U. S. 903 (1993), to resolve a conflict among the Circuits on this issue. Compare the decision below with Atcherson v. Siebenmann, 605 F. 2d 1058 (CA8 1979); Wulf v. Wichita, 883 F. 2d 842 (CA10 1989); Sims v. Metropolitan Dade County, 972 F. 2d 1230 (CA11 1992).


There is no dispute in this case about when speech by a government employee is protected by the First Amendment: To be protected, the speech must be on a matter of public concern, and the employee's interest in expressing herself on this matter must not be outweighed by any injury the speech could cause to "`the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.' " Connick, supra, at 142 (quoting Pickering v. Board of Ed. of Township High School Dist. 205, Will Cty., 391 U. S. 563, 568 (1968)). It is also agreed that it is the court's task to apply the Connick test to the facts. 461 U. S., at 148, n. 7, and 150, n. 10.

The dispute is over how the factual basis for applying the test—what the speech was, in what tone it was delivered, what the listener's reactions were, see id., at 151-153—is to be determined. Should the court apply the Connick test to the speech as the government employer found it to be, or should it ask the jury to determine the facts for itself? The Court of Appeals held that the employer's factual conclusions were irrelevant, and that the jury should engage in its own factfinding. Petitioners argue that the employer's factual conclusions should be dispositive. Resp...

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