In a recent decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that government workers subpoenaed to testify about misconduct they observed on the job are protected from whistleblower retaliation by their employers, a decision that could affect millions of government employees who were previously protected only if speaking as citizens and not as public employees. According to a Washington Post report on the case, the impact this may have on exposing government corruption could be significant as public employees may now be more inclined to testify without the threat of losing their jobs.
The plaintiff in the case – Lane vs. Franks – was a director of a youth training program at Central Alabama Community College. In 2006, Mr. Lane discovered that a state legislator, Suzanne Schmitz, had created a job for herself in his program and was paid $177,000 despite performing little, if any, work. Lane terminated Schmitz, who was later tried and convicted on corruption charges and was sentenced to 30 months in prison and restitution. The conviction was due in large part to Lane’s testimony against her.
Lane was subsequently terminated from his position in 2009. He claimed it was in retaliation for his testimony in the Schmitz case, but his employer asserted that his termination was prompted by financial reasons unrelated to his testimony.
The lower courts found that Lane’s speech (his testimony against Schmitz) was not protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because public employees do not have protections for statements they make as part of their official duties. The Supreme Court reversed in a unanimous decision that found such speech is protected and necessary to prosecute corruption by public officials and other matters of public concern.
If you are a public employee who has information regarding government wrongdoing or misconduct and fear retaliation if you speak out, please contact the Employment Litigation attorneys at Sommers Schwartz to discuss your situation and your rights.