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Brooks v. Arthur, No. 11-1899

Decided: July 9, 2012

In this case, the Fourth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the Defendant superintendents of a correctional facility on a claim that they had violated certain employees’ First Amendment rights.  The court held that the superintendents had not violated the employees’ rights by terminating their employment in alleged retaliation for filing discrimination complaints because the Plaintiffs’ speech did not involve a matter of public concern.

The Plaintiffs, James Brooks and Donald Hamlette, were corrections officers at a Virginia Department of Corrections (“VDOC”) facility who were fired after Brooks discussed with the VDOC’s Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) that he was being singled out for unfair workplace treatment and Hamlette, a minority, filed a complaint with the EEO that he was being discriminated against on the basis of his race and religion.  Shortly after they were fired, the VDOC Department of Employment Dispute Resolution reinstated both employees and awarded them back pay.  The Plaintiffs subsequently brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against the Defendants, alleging that the VDOC superintendents had violated their First Amendment right to free speech by firing them in retaliation for making their employment discrimination claims.

The District Court for the Western District of Virginia granted summary judgment for the Defendants, and on appeal the Fourth Circuit upheld that order.  The court looked to its decision in Stroman v. Colleton County School District, 981 F.2d 152 (4th Cir. 1992) which provided that “personal grievances such as complaints about conditions of employment…do not constitute speech about matters of public concern that are protected by the First Amendment.”  Applying this precedent, the court found that the speech that the Plaintiffs alleged had been curtailed was not a matter of public concern but pertained only to personal grievances with an employer.  Thus, the First Amendment could not be invoked to protect the Plaintiffs’ complaints regarding employment favoritism.  The court concluded by stating that it was not offering any view on the merits of any other claims the Plaintiffs may have, but rather, that the First Amendment was not violated in this employee-grievance dispute between these two parties.

Full Opinion

-John C. Bruton, III