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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Town Employee's Termination Did Not Violate the First Amendment

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently issued a decision in Sweet v. Town of Bargersville and Longstreet. The case involved a customer service employee for the Town of Bargersville who was discharged in January 2018. The employee brought civil rights claims against the Town alleging she was fired in retaliation for exercising her free speech rights under the First Amendment. 

Sweet was employed by the Town of Bargersville for nearly 20 years and claims she performed her job adequately until her primary duty—collecting utility bill payments—was outsourced in 2015. She then transitioned into a general customer service role and her performance reviews then stated she was argumentative, resistant to change, and disorganized. In August 2017, Sweet disconnected a resident’s utility services because the resident failed to pay his bills. Shortly thereafter, the Clerk-Treasurer, Steve Longstreet, reconnected the resident’s utilities, which Sweet claims in her lawsuit was motivated by his personal and business affiliation with the resident and the resident’s prominent status in the community. Sweet shared her criticisms of Longstreet and this perceived inequity with co-workers and confronted Longstreet outright.

Shortly after this reconnection incident, Sweet was prohibited from handling disconnections. In January 2018, Sweet was discharged from the Town. The Town stated that the reason she was terminated was because she was not adequately keeping up with the transition to automated systems.

Sweet filed suit in federal court which ruled in favor of the Town and Longstreet—the court found that Sweet could not establish First Amendment retaliation because she failed to show that the decision to terminate her employment was made with retaliatory motive. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court's ruling but also held that Sweet’s speech was not protected by the U.S. Constitution as required by a First Amendment retaliation claim. Citing Supreme Court precedent, the Seventh Circuit reasoned that “speech that owes its existence to a public employee’s professional responsibilities,” even if not strictly required by the employer, is not protected under the First Amendment. Since Sweet’s criticism of Longstreet was directly related to her job duties as a utility-collections clerk, any perceived adverse action did not violate her free speech rights but was instead a fair response by her employer to a work-related disagreement. 

The Seventh Circuit also noted that Sweet was terminated for multiple performance deficiencies five months after she complained to Longstreet about perceived misconduct. Since Sweet failed to show that her speech was protected or that she was discharged for exercising her First Amendment rights, her termination was not unconstitutional.

Post Authored by Erin Monforti & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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