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Bland v. Roberts, No. 12-1671

Decided: September 18, 2013

 The Fourth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s order granting summary judgment against six plaintiffs in their action against the Sheriff of the City of Hampton, Virginia for his alleged retaliation against them in violation of their First Amendment rights. The Fourth Circuit also remanded the case for trial with respect to some of the claims.

B. J. Roberts, the Sheriff for the City of Hampton, was up for re-election in November 2009 and had been challenged in his reelection bid by Jim Adams, who had worked in the Sheriff’s Office for 16 years and had attained the rank of the third most senior officer.  Notwithstanding laws and regulations prohibiting the use of state equipment or resources for political activities, Sheriff Roberts used his office and the employees he controlled to further his reelection efforts.  Sheriff Robert won reelection in November 2009 and subsequently reappointed 147 of his 159 full-time employees.  The six plaintiffs, all former employees of the Hampton Sheriff’s Office (“the Sheriff’s Office”), were not reappointed to their positions. The plaintiffs filed suit in federal court against Sheriff Roberts, in his individual and official capacity, alleging that he violated their First Amendment right to free association when he refused to reappoint them because they failed to support his reelection bid.  In addition, four of the plaintiffs alleged that the Sheriff violated their First Amendment right to free speech when he refused to reappoint them because of various speeches they made in support of his opponent’s campaign.  The plaintiffs sought compensation for lost back pay and reinstatement in their former positions. Sheriff Roberts moved for summary judgment and the district court granted it.

With respect to the free speech claims, the district court concluded that the plaintiffs all failed to allege that they engage in expressive speech.  Regarding the association claims, the district court concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to establish a causal relationship between their support of Adams’s campaign and their non-reappointment.  Finally, the district court held that, even assuming that the sheriff did violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights, he was entitled to qualified immunity on the individual capacity claims and Eleventh Amendment immunity on the official capacity claims.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit concluded that, with respect to the free association claims, some of plaintiffs at least created a genuine factual dispute regarding whether the sheriff violated their rights; however, three of the plaintiffs did not.  The Court made a distinction based on the positions of the plaintiffs finding that the claims made by the uniformed jailers, that held the title of Sheriff’s deputies, had to be subjected to a Jenkins’s analysis. This required looking at the duties of the deputies in question and determining if political loyalty was appropriate requirement for the effective performance of their public employment as deputies. Based on the formal job descriptions provided, the Court held that the plaintiffs in this case did not exercise the “significant discretion” that North Carolina deputies normally exercise. Therefore, the Sheriff, at this point in the proceedings, had not established that the jailers’ arrest duties were “sufficiently significant” that they would affect whether their political allegiance to the share was an appropriate requirement for their effective performance of their jobs. With regards to the causation analysis for the free association claims, the Court concluded that the three jailers had at least created genuine factual disputes as to whether their lack of political allegiance to the Sheriff was a substantial basis for the decision not to reappoint them. On the other hand, the three non-deputy administrative employees could not establish a causal relationship between their non-reappointment and their lack of political allegiance to the Sheriff and the Court affirmed summary judgment with respect to their claims.

The Court next turned to the merits of the free-speech claims. Again, the Court agreed that the uniform jailers at least created general factual disputes regarding whether the Sheriff violated their free speech rights, but the non-sworn administrative employee did not.  In its analysis the Fourth Circuit first addressed whether the conduct that the employees maintained led to their non-reappointment constituted speech at all.  The Court held that “liking” the Adams’s campaign page on Facebook or posting a comment on the page qualified as speech and was also a form of symbolic expression.  The Court reasoned that clicking the “like” button on a campaign page is similar to placing a political candidate’s yard sign in a front yard. The Court also held that statements made by an employee at the polling place also constituted speech. Next, the Court quickly addressed whether the employees were speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public concern and found that employees’ conduct satisfied this element. The Court concluded that the employees’ interest in expressing support for his candidate outweighed the Sheriff’s interest in providing effective services to the public. Finally, as was the case with the free association claims, the Court found that the uniform jailers created a factual dispute regarding whether their speech was the cause for their non-reappointment.

The Fourth Circuit then addressed the Sheriff’s immunity defenses. With respect to the Eleventh Amendment immunity, the Court agreed with the plaintiffs that this immunity does not bar claims advanced against the Sheriff in his official capacity, to the extent that the plaintiffs were seeking the remedy of reinstatement because that relief was prospective in nature.  Regarding the qualified immunity defense, the Court held that the Sheriff was entitled to qualified immunity concerning the uniformed jailers claims because, following his election, the sheriff could have believed he had the right to choose not to reappoint his sworn deputies for political reasons. The Court reasoned that the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Jenkins sent “very mixed signals.” As a result, the Court concluded that the Sheriff could have believed that he was authorized to terminate any of his deputies for political reasons. Therefore, the district court properly ruled that the Sheriff was entitled to qualified immunity with regards to the plaintiffs’ claims seeking money damages against the Sheriff in his individual capacity.

Full Opinion

– John G. Tamasitis