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9.9 Particular Rights—First Amendment—Public Employees—Speech

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This chapter is being reviewed in light of comments solicited by the Committee from the public.

9.9 PARTICULAR RIGHTSFIRST AMENDMENT—PUBLIC EMPLOYEES—SPEECH

As previously explained, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the act[s] of the defendant [name] deprived the plaintiff of particular rights under the United States Constitution. In this case, the plaintiff alleges the defendant deprived [him] [her] of [his] [her] rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution when [insert factual basis of the plaintiff’s claim].

Under the First Amendment, a public employee has a qualified right to speak on matters of public concern. I instruct you that the speech was on a matter of public concern. In order to prove the defendant deprived the plaintiff of this First Amendment right, the plaintiff must prove the following additional elements by a preponderance of the evidence:

1.the plaintiff spoke as a private citizen and not as part of [his] [her] official duties as a public employee;

2.the defendant took an adverse employment action against the plaintiff; and

3.the plaintiff’s speech was a substantial or motivating factor for the adverse employment action.

An action is an adverse employment action if a reasonable employee would have found the action materially adverse, which means it might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from engaging in protected activity.

A substantial or motivating factor is a significant factor.

 

Comment 

Use this instruction only in conjunction with the applicable elements instruction, Instructions 9.3–9.8, and when the plaintiff is a public employee. Use Instruction 9.10 (Particular Rights—First Amendment—"Citizen" Plaintiff) when the plaintiff is a private citizen. Because this instruction is phrased in terms focusing the jury on the defendant’s liability for certain acts, the instruction should be modified to the extent liability is premised on a failure to act in order to avoid any risk of misstating the law. See Clem v. Lomeli, 566 F.3d 1177, 1181-82 (9th Cir.2009). If there is a dispute about whether the public employee was speaking as a private citizen, use Instruction 9.10. 

As to whether a public employee’s speech is protected under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has "made clear that public employees do not surrender all their First Amendment rights by reason of their employment. Rather, the First Amendment protects a public employee’s right, in certain circumstances, to speak as a citizen addressing matters of public concern." Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 417 (2006); see also Borough of Duryea, Pa. v. Guarnieri, 564 U.S. 379, 383-86 (2011) (applying Garcetti public concern test to public employee’s First Amendment Petition Clause Claims). 

In Gibson v. Office of Attorney General, State of California, 561 F.3d 920, 925 (9th Cir.2009), the Ninth Circuit reiterated the "sequential five-step series of questions" to consider when evaluating a public employee’s First Amendment retaliation claim: 

(1) [W]hether the plaintiff spoke on a matter of public concern; (2) whether the plaintiff spoke as a private citizen or public employee; (3) whether the plaintiff’s protected speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment action; (4) whether the state had an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from other members of the general public; and (5) whether the state would have taken the adverse employment action even absent the protected speech."  Id. (quoting Eng v. Cooley, 552 F.3d 1062, 1070 (9th Cir.2009)). 

Because this instruction only addresses the first three elements summarized in Eng and Gibson, the instruction should be modified if there are jury issues involving the fourth or fifth factors stated above. 

The "public concern inquiry is purely a question of law," Gibson, 561 F.3d at 925 (citing Eng, 552 F.3d at 1070), that depends on the "content, form, and context of a given statement, as revealed by the whole record." Ulrich v. City & Cnty. of S.F., 308 F.3d 968, 976-77 (9th Cir.2002). 

In Garcetti, a prosecutor brought a § 1983 action against his superiors and public employer, alleging that he was retaliated against because of a memorandum he wrote that challenged the veracity of a deputy sheriff’s affidavit used to procure a search warrant. The Supreme Court held the prosecutor could not establish a First Amendment violation because he prepared the memorandum as part of his official duties and not as a private citizen: "We hold that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline." 547 U.S. at 421-22. The Supreme Court, however, limited its ruling in two respects. First, in an explicit effort to avoid having its holding serve as an invitation for employers to restrict employees’ rights "by creating excessively broad job descriptions," the Court noted that "the listing of a given task in an employee’s written job description is neither necessary nor sufficient to demonstrate that conducting the task is within the scope of the employee’s professional duties for First Amendment purposes." Id. at 424-25. Second, the Court recognized that "[t]here is some argument that expression related to academic scholarship or classroom instruction implicates additional constitutional interests that are not fully accounted for by this Court’s customary employee-speech jurisprudence … [F]or that reason [we] do not[] decide whether the analysis we conduct today would apply in the same manner to a case involving speech related to scholarship or teaching." Id. at 425. 

In Demers v. Austin, 746 F.3d 402 (9th Cir.2014), however, the Ninth Circuit answered the latter question and held that "Garcetti does not apply to ‘speech related to scholarship or teaching.’" Id. at 406. Rather, the Ninth Circuit held that such speech is governed by Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968) (considering speech by public school teacher critical of school board). Id. The Demers court went on to conclude that a state university professor’s plan for changes in his department addressed a matter of public concern under Pickering. Id. at 414-17. 

Whether the plaintiff spoke as a public employee or a private citizen is a mixed question of fact and law. Posey v. Lake Pend Oreille Sch. Dist. No. 84, 546 F.3d 1121, 1129 (9th Cir.2008). In particular, "the scope and content of a plaintiff’s job responsibilities is a question of fact." Id. at 1130; accord Coomes v. Edmonds Sch. Dist. No. 15, 816 F.3d 1255, 1260 (9th Cir.2016). In Dahlia v. Rodriguez, 735 F.3d 1060 (9th Cir.2013)(en banc), the Ninth Circuit overruled Huppert v. City of Pittsburg, 574 F.3d 696 (9th Cir.2009), and found that the district court had improperly relied on a generic job description and failed to conduct the practical, fact-specific inquiry required by Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 424. Dahlia, 735 F.3d at 1063. The Ninth Circuit also set forth guiding principles for performing the Garcetti inquiry in analogous cases. Id. at 1073-76; see, e.g., Hagen v. City of Eugene, 736 F.3d 1251, 1258-60 (9th Cir.2013) (holding that public employee reporting departmental safety concerns pursuant to duty to so report did not speak as private citizen). "Truthful testimony under oath by a public employee outside the scope of his ordinary job duties is speech as a citizen for First Amendment purposes. 

That is so even when the testimony relates to his public employment or concerns information learned during that employment." Lane v. Franks, 134 S. Ct. 2369, 2378 (2014); see also Avila v. L.A. Police Dep’t, 758 F.3d 1096, 1104 (9th Cir.2014). 

The definition of "adverse employment action" in this instruction is substantially the same as that in Instruction 10.4A.1 (Civil Rights—Title VII—"Adverse Employment Action" in Retaliation Cases). See the Comment to that instruction for supporting authorities. 

With respect to causation, "[i]t is clear . . . that the causation is understood to be but-for causation, without which the adverse action would not have been taken." Hartman v. Moore, 547 U.S. 250, 260 (2006). Thus, "upon a prima facie showing of retaliatory harm, the burden shifts to the defendant official to demonstrate that even without the impetus to retaliate he would have taken the action complained of (such as firing the employee)." Id. And "a final decision maker’s wholly independent, legitimate decision to terminate an employee [can] insulate from liability a lower-level supervisor involved in the process who had a retaliatory motive to have the employee fired" when, as a matter of causation, "the termination decision was not shown to be influenced by the subordinate’s retaliatory motives." Lakeside-Scott v. Multnomah Cnty., 556 F.3d 797, 799 (9th Cir.2009). Regarding motive, the defendant’s actions must have been substantially motivated by a desire to deter or chill the employee’s speech. Awabdy v. City of Adelanto, 368 F.3d 1062, 1071 (9th Cir.2004); Sloman v. Tadlock, 21 F.3d 1465 & n.10 (9th Cir.1994). 

Defining "substantial or motivating factor" as a "significant factor" does not misstate the law. Ostad v. Or. Health Scis. Univ., 327 F.3d 876, 884-85 (9th Cir.2003). 

This instruction should be modified when an employee was allegedly subjected to an adverse employment action based on an employer’s erroneous belief that the employee engaged in protected speech. In such cases, it is the employer’s motive for taking the adverse action that triggers the employee’s right to bring an action. See Heffernan v. City of Paterson, N.J., 136 S. Ct. 1412 (2016) (holding that police officer who was demoted could pursue claim against employer even though employer acted erroneously on belief that employee had participated in political activity).