(CN) – Palm Beach County, Fla., did not violate a firefighter’s rights by demoting him for having an extramarital affair with a subordinate, the 11th Circuit ruled.
“We conclude that [the firefighter’s supervisor and the county] did not violate the Constitution, because the county’s interest in discouraging extramarital association between supervisors and subordinates is so critical to the effective functioning of the fire department that it outweighs the firefighter’s interest in extramarital association with a subordinate,” Judge Phyllis Kravitch wrote for the three-judge panel.
Randolph Starling, a former rescue captain, had an affair with subordinate Carolyn Smith while he was separated from his wife in 2005, the ruling states.
Starling’s wife filed for divorce in July, and Starling moved in with Smith in October. They were married the following June.
But Starling claimed that soon after he began living with Smith, he found out that his direct supervisor, Ken Fisher, had used Smith’s house for trysts with another married firefighter. Smith was allegedly propositioned for a “three-person sexual encounter” with Fisher and another firefighter, and Starling asked her to stop letting Fisher use her home, the ruling states.
Starling claimed that Fisher pressured him to end his relationship with Smith, saying his “preoccupation” with her was “caus[ing] a disruption for the station officer and for the crew.” Starling was later demoted for not breaking it off with Smith, he claimed.
Starling sued Fisher and the county in federal court, claiming they violated his First Amendment right to “intimate association.”
The district court judge ruled for the defendants, citing a lack of evidence that Fisher’s actions had caused Starling to be demoted. The lower court did not rule on whether the First Amendment protected Starling’s relationship with Smith, and the Atlanta-based appeals court similarly sidestepped the issue.
“Instead, we assume … that Starling’s right to intimate, extramarital association with Smith is fundamental,” Judge Kravitch wrote. “Our conclusion rests on our assessment of the county’s interest in discouraging extramarital affairs between supervisors and subordinates in the fire department.”
Kravitch said the county has a “strong interest” in regulating such relationships.
“Starling’s battalion worked 24-hour shifts that required him and his subordinates to sleep and work in close proximity,” the judge wrote. “Intimate, extramarital relationships between subordinates and supervisors in this environment can be particularly destructive to the chain of command by weakening trust and discipline and threatening harmonious interpersonal relationships.
The panel upheld the lower court’s ruling for Fisher and Palm Beach County.