(CN) – A Santa Fe worker can’t sue city officials for allegedly retaliating against her for criticizing proposed budget cuts in a conversation with a New Mexico congressman, the 10th Circuit ruled.
While serving as director of a senior services program in Santa Fe, Patricia Chavez-Rodriguez spoke out against 2005 funding cuts that she claimed were in violation of federal law.
She said her opposition angered two city councilors in particular: David Coss and Karen Heldmeyer.
In May 2005, her division hosted a volunteer appreciation banquet that was also attended by New Mexico House Speaker Ben Lujan, a family friend of Chavez-Rodriguez.
Chavez-Rodriguez said she told Lujan that she was “really, really, really concerned” that the senior service program “is in jeopardy of being dismantled.” Lujan allegedly promised to talk to the mayor and the city manager about it.
The city ultimately restored the funds, after determining that the budget transfers violated the Older Americans Act.
Chavez-Rodriguez said her conversation with Lujan angered Heldmeyer and Coss, who was elected mayor in 2006. Chavez-Rodriguez was allegedly retaliated against and demoted.
Though she was later reinstated as director, she sued the city, Heldmeyer, Coss and Jack Hiatt, the assistant city manager who had demoted her.
The district court dismissed most of her retaliation claims, saying her speech wasn’t protected because it stemmed from her official duties. But the court allowed her to pursue retaliation claims based on her conversation with Lujan.
The three-judge panel in Denver reversed, explaining that “the content of the speech strongly suggests Chavez-Rodriguez was communicating with Lujan pursuant to her employment duties.”
“Chavez-Rodriguez’s speech at the banquet can be likened to lobbying a government official to support the division’s needs and concerns in light of the budget crisis,” Judge Michael Murphy wrote.
“Lujan’s high-ranking position placed him in a position to influence the situation in light of Chavez-Rodriguez’s concerns,” Murphy added. “Thus, even though Chavez-Rodriguez may have been stepping outside the chain of command when speaking with Lujan, the nature of the conversation indicates the speech was not undertaken as a private citizen, but rather in Chavez-Rodriguez’s role as the director.”