(CN) – The district court improperly denied immunity to Oregon Gov. Theodore Kulongoski over claims that he made stigmatizing statements to the press about former employees of the state-chartered workers’ compensation company, leading some of them to resign or get fired, the 9th Circuit ruled.
The governor issued two press releases in response to the media fury over alleged ethical violations practiced by Katherine Keene, then-president of the State Accident Insurance Fund Corp. The nonprofit company faced charges that it failed to accurately report its lobbying expenses and failed to produce documents in violation of public records laws.
When Keene resigned in December 2003, Cecil Tibbetts assumed the role of interim president. A few state senators began calling for an “independent review” of SAIF’s spending, and a state commission reportedly launched an investigation into whether the company had under-reported its lobbying expenses.
Kulongoski responded to the criticism by appointing Brenda Rocklin to replace Tibbetts. “For months now, I have been very concerned about management decisions at SAIF,” Kulongoski wrote in a statement to the press. He ordered a top-to-bottom review of SAIF, saying “the public needs to know that SAIF is being run in an ethical and accountable manner – and the person to lead that effort is Brenda Rocklin.”
Former SAIF employees, including Tibbetts, said the governor stigmatized them without giving them a chance to clear their names, in violation of the 14th Amendment’s due process rights. They said the statements led to their resignations or firings.
The governor moved to dismiss the claims on the basis of qualified immunity, but the district court denied his motion and allowed the case to proceed.
The San Francisco-based federal appeals court overturned that decision.
A three-judge panel expressed no opinion on whether the statements were actually stigmatizing, but assumed that they were for the purposes of analyzing the case.
“Here, it cannot be said that a reasonable person in Governor Kulongoski’s position would have known that he was violating plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment due process rights under the circumstances of this case,” Judge Smith wrote.
But even assuming the statements were stigmatizing, the judge added, the plaintiffs failed to establish a close enough link between the governor’s statements and the job terminations.