LAWSON v. UNION CNTY. CLERK OF COURT, NO. 14-2360

Decided: July 7, 2016

The Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s ruling.

Appellee Gault terminated the Appellant Lawson from her position as a deputy clerk in the Clerk of Court’s Office in Union County, South Carolina. Lawson argued that her termination was in violation of her rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Gault, holding that Lawson’s position was a confidential or policymaking position and she was subject to termination for campaigning against her boss. At issue in this appeal is whether the district court correctly established as a matter of law that Lawson held a position for which political loyalty was required.

In reviewing the circuit court’s decision in favor of summary judgment, the Fourth Circuit applied the same legal standards as the district court while viewing all the facts and reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. In it’s determination, the Fourth Circuit focused on two lines of cases that deal with the limitations on a public employee’s First Amendment rights. The first doctrine, known as the “Elrod-Branti” exception, holds that policymaking employees may be terminated for their political beliefs if their party affiliation is an “appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved.” The second doctrine provides that public employees are not protected by the First Amendment when, “their speech interests are outweighed by the government’s interest in providing efficient and effective services to the public.”

The district court held that Gault was within his right to fire Lawson under the previously mentioned “Elrod-Branti” exception, because Lawson held a confidential, policymaking position that required political loyalty. The Fourth Circuit disagreed with that holding because in the eyes of the court, Gault had not satisfied the criteria of the “Elrod-Branti” exception calling for a demonstration that Lawson’s position required political loyalty. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit determined that Gault had not demonstrated an entitlement to qualified immunity or Eleventh Amendment immunity. Since Gault did not establish that Lawson was a policymaking employee for whom political association was an appropriate job requirement, the “Elrod-Branti” exception does not apply and thus Gault is not entitled to qualified immunity.

Because the Fourth Circuit determined that, in light of the facts, Gault has not established as a matter of law that Lawson held a position for which political loyalty was required, summary judgment was not appropriate and thus the Fourth Circuit vacated the circuit court’s ruling in favor of summary judgment for the Appellee.

Accordingly, the Court vacated and remanded the district court’s ruling.

Full Opinion

Whitney Kamerzel

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