From Supreme Court, Firm Support For Employee In Retaliation Case The justices unanimously ruled that a public employee who testified about corruption should not have been punished for doing so. Going forward, though, some tricky questions are still undecided.


From Supreme Court, Firm Support For Employee In Retaliation Case

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The Supreme Court ruled today that public employees cannot be fired in retaliation for testifying truthfully on matters of public corruption or public concern. The unanimous decision came in the case of Edward Lane. He was fired after he testified that an Alabama state legislator was being paid by taxpayers for a job she wasn't doing. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Lane managed a program for at-risk juvenile offenders that was run out of Central Alabama Community College. After he was hired, he conducted an audit and found that one of the programs employees, a state legislator named Susan Schmitz, was not showing up for work. Lane says people in his office warned him not to tango with Schmitz because of her influence, but as he puts it...

EDWARD LANE: It was against the law. To me, it's sort of like being the president of the bank. If I know that one of my tellers is stealing from the bank, and I allow it to go on, then I'm complicit.

TOTENBERG: So he fired Schmitz. Soon after, the FBI subpoenaed Lane to testify as part of a public corruption investigation. He gave sworn testimony, first before a grand jury and later at Schmitz's two trials. Schmitz was subsequently convicted of fraudulently obtaining $177,000 in public funds and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Lane, however, was not rewarded for exposing public corruption. He was fired by the president of the Community College. So he sued, contending that he was being punished for his testimony in violation of his First Amendment right of free speech. A federal appeals court ruled that under a 2006 Supreme Court decision, public employees have no free-speech rights when they testify about information they learn on the job.

But today, the Supreme Court took a very different view. Writing for the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that testimony in judicial proceedings is the quintessential example of speech as a citizen. Anyone who testifies in court bears an obligation to the court and to society at-large to tell the truth, she said. And no public employee should be forced to choose between testifying truthfully and losing his or her job. The court's decision went further than just the question of testifying. Sotomayor noted that the public's interest lies in encouraging, rather than inhibiting, speech by public employees because those employees are often in the best position to know what ails the agencies for which they work. She was careful to add, however, that today's ruling leaves open the question of when, if ever, it applies to public employees whose job it is to testify in court.

Policemen and lab technicians, for example, as opposed to those whose job, like Lane's, ordinarily has nothing to do with court testimony. Back in that 2006 case, a bitterly divided Supreme Court ruled that public employees have few, if any, rights when they speak out about matters involving their job duties. Today's opinion seemed, however, to send a very different message, says Tom Goldstein, a Supreme Court advocate who represented Lane.

TOM GOLDSTEIN: We learned something important today, and that is that the Supreme Court isn't on a mission to eliminate constitutional protections for government employees.

TOTENBERG: Michael Dorke, a labor and employment law specialist who generally represents management, agrees.

MICHAEL DORKE: I think this case illustrates an overall trend towards protecting whistleblowers, both public and private. It gives them claims of retaliation that they might not have otherwise had.

TOTENBERG: Ironically, the only person who will not benefit from today's decision is Edward Lane. The Supreme Court has a long-established rule that says essentially, you can't win money damages for violating a rule of law that was not completely clear at the time of the violation. Or as Tom Goldstein puts it...

GOLDSTEIN: The Supreme Court has, essentially, a dog-gets-one-free-bite rule.

TOTENBERG: So Lane doesn't get money damages. He could get his job back, but it doesn't exist anymore. From here on in, however, such violations will be punishable with money damages, back pay, etc. Lane said today, that he was not really concerned about the fact that he personally would not be reimbursed for what he said has been a long and often painful battle. He was just thrilled to have had his rights vindicated.

LANE: It's a win for public employees everywhere. It's a win for everyone that has witnessed wrongdoing in the workplace but was afraid to speak up because they were afraid that they might lose their job. It's a great win.

TOTENBERG: Edward Lane currently works as a security officer at the army base in Anniston, Alabama. He gives his family credit for standing behind him in hard times, and he gives God credit for making the Supreme Court see what he calls, the right legal path. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.


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