(CN) – The city manager in Laramie, Wyo., violated a police chief’s free speech rights when she fired him for filing a defamation lawsuit, the 10th Circuit ruled.
Former Laramie Police Chief Robert Deutsch used petty cash from the city to buy a laptop in 2007, which violated city policy, according to the ruling. Tim Hale, a private citizen, brought up that issue at a city council meeting the following year. Hale later sent City Manager Janine Jordan a letter regarding the laptop purchase.
Deutsch sued Hale in small-claims court, and the judge dismissed the suit, holding that Deutsch failed to prove that Hale acted with actual malice.
After filing the lawsuit, Deutsch told the media that he would step down as police chief. In July, Jordan fired him, “concerned that he had not testified truthfully at the defamation trial.”
Deutsch then sued Jordan and the City of Laramie, claiming he was fired for filing the initial defamation lawsuit. The judge found that Jordan violated Deutsch’s free speech, and Jordan appealed.
On appeal, Judge Harris Hartz found that the matter was one of public concern, even if Deutsch had testified to clear his name.
“Clearing his name and responding to a charge of public corruption amounted to the same thing,” Hartz wrote.
The circuit affirmed the district’s finding that Jordan was not immune from the First Amendment claim against her, since the court doubted the truthfulness of her defense.
“Unlike a Fourth Amendment claim, a First Amendment retaliation claim depends on the defendant’s state of mind; whether the decision to fire violated the First Amendment turns on what motivated the person making the firing decision,” the circuit ruled.