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Kensington Volunteer Fire v. Montgomery County, No. 11-1659

Decided:  June 27, 2012

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of a complaint brought by a group of local fire and rescue departments (“LFRDs”) and former administrative employees against Montgomery County, Maryland, the County Council, and county officials.  The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants had eliminated part of their funding in retaliation for the plaintiffs’ opposition to legislation supported by the defendants.

This case arose out of budgetary decisions made in response to budget cuts passed by the County Council that included cuts to LFRDs.  The County had supported “ambulance fee” legislation which was defeated by voters and left the County without $14.1 million in funding that the bill was anticipated to bring in annually.  The plaintiffs had actively campaigned against this legislation and alleged that because of their opposition to the bill, the County acted to cut their budget.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed with the plaintiffs’ arguments, affirming the district court’s dismissal of each of their claims.  First, the court held that the district court properly dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims under the First Amendment, Article 40 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights (“Article 40 is ‘co-extensive’ with the First Amendment”), and § 1983.  The court reasoned that the defendants’ actions were legislative in nature and were made across the board and not suffered by the plaintiffs alone.  The court found that the budget was facially valid, and it relied on United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968), in refusing to inquire into the allegedly unconstitutional motive behind the County’s budget.

The Fourth Circuit further found that the County Executive and Fire Chief, both named as defendants in the plaintiffs’ complaint, were shielded by legislative immunity based on Bogan v. Scott-Harris, 523 U.S. 44 (1998), where the Supreme Court stated that “[l]ocal legislators are entitled to absolute immunity from § 1983 liability for their legislative activities.”  The Fourth Circuit reiterated determinations from previous cases that extended this immunity to officials outside of the legislative branch when performing legislative functions, such as the defendants in this case.  Because these two individual defendants took action associated with the “budgetmaking process,” a legislative act, they were entitled to legislative immunity.

Finally, because Maryland law specifically provides that employees of LFRDs are not County employees, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination that the plaintiffs, as employees of the LFRDs, were barred from bringing an abusive discharge claim under Maryland law which only recognizes a cause of action between an at will employee against an employer.  The Fourth Circuit additionally reasoned that because the LFRDs themselves eliminated the administrative positions and terminated the individual employees, as opposed to the County which merely reduced the LFRDs’ budget, the plaintiffs’ claim for abusive discharge could not be sustained.

Full Opinion

– Allison Hite