The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reaffirmed that an employee does not have First Amendment protection for statements made as part of his job. New Worcester County Sheriff Louis Evangelidis fired Jude Cristo, who had been the Director of Payroll and Human Resources. Cristo challenged his termination, claiming that he was fired because he complained that employees’ were not doing their jobs because they were engaging in political campaigning during work hours. Cristo claimed that the First Amendment protected his complaints. The Court disagreed.
In granting Evangelidis summary judgment, the Court of Appeals found that Cristo’s speech did not constitute protected expression for First Amendment purposes. The Court of Appeals noted settled Supreme Court precedent that is used to determine when a public employee’s speech is protected. In reviewing speech, the court asks, in part, whether the employee is speaking in their capacity as a citizen regarding a matter of public concern. The Court of Appeals agreed that Cristo was clearly commenting on a matter of public concern because the complaints he made to his supervisor were related to the potential misconduct of sheriff’s office employees. This speech was strongly tied to a matter of public concern because it related to public employee’s campaigning during work hours instead of performing their actual duties and committing other potentially unlawful acts.
However, the Court nonetheless found the speech to be unprotected because Cristo’s comments were made pursuant to his official duties and he was not necessarily commenting as a private citizen. The Court found that Cristo’s complaints were all made in furtherance of fulfilling his duties as the director of payroll and human resources, as his duties included making sure that employees correctly reported their time and included making sure that other employees complied with their human resources responsibilities. Consequently, as Cristo was merely making statements pursuant to his official duties and was not speaking in his capacity as a private citizen, his speech was not entitled to First Amendment protection.
This case is a reminder that while a public employee “does not leave her constitutional rights at the door” when she goes to work, those rights are curtailed when it comes to the operation of her governmental employer.
You can read the decision here.