By: Kristina Wilson
On Monday, March 20, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Grutzmacher v. Howard County. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court for the District of Maryland’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, holding that the defendant’s termination of plaintiffs did not violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment Free Speech rights. The plaintiff raises two arguments on appeal.
Facts and Procedural History
Prior to initiating this action, plaintiffs worked for the defendant, the Howard County, Maryland Department of Fire and Rescue Services. In 2011, the defendant started drafting a Social Media Policy (“the Policy”) in response to a volunteer firefighter’s inflammatory and racially discriminatory social media posts that attracted negative media attention. The Policy prevented employees from posting any statements that may be perceived as discriminatory, harassing, or defamatory or that would impugn the defendant’s credibility. Additionally, in 2012, the defendant promulgated a Code of Conduct (“the Code”) that prohibited disrespectful conduct toward authority figures or the chain of command established by the defendant. Finally, the Code required employees to conduct themselves in a manner that reflected favorably on the defendant.
On January 20, 2013, one of the plaintiffs advocated killing “liberals” on his Facebook page while on duty for defendant. The defendant asked the plaintiff to review the Policy and remove any postings that did not conform. Although the plaintiff maintained that he was in compliance with the Policy, he removed the January 20th posting. On January 23, 2013, the plaintiff posted a series of statements that accused the defendant of stifling his First Amendment rights. On February 17, 2013, the plaintiff also “liked” a Facebook post by a coworker was captioned “For you, chief” and displayed a photo of an obscene gesture. Shortly thereafter, the defendant served the plaintiff with charges of dismissal and afforded the plaintiff an opportunity for a preliminary hearing on March 8, 2013. On March 14, 2013, the defendant terminated the plaintiff.
At the district court, the plaintiff argued that the defendant fired him in retaliation for his use of his First Amendment Free Speech rights and that the Policy and Code were facially unconstitutional for restricting employees’ Free Speech. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding the retaliation claims, holding that the plaintiff’s January 20th posts and “likes” were capable of disrupting the defendant’s ability to perform its duties and thus did not constitute protected speech. Similarly, the January 23rd post and February 17th “like” were not protected speech because they did not implicate a matter of public concern. In June of 2015, the defendant revised its Policy and Code to eliminate all the challenged provisions. As a result, the district court dismissed the plaintiff’s facial challenge as moot.
The Plaintiff’s Free Speech Rights Did Not Outweigh the Defendant’s Interest
In evaluating the plaintiff’s First Amendment retaliation claim, the Fourth Circuit applied the Mcvey v. Stacy three-prong test. 157 F.3d 271 (4th Cir. 1998). Under Mcvey, a plaintiff must show the following three conditions: i) that he was a public employee speaking on a matter of public concern, ii) that his interest in speaking about a matter of public concern outweighed the government’s interest in providing effective and efficient services to the public, and iii) that such speech was a “substantial factor” in the plaintiff’s termination. Id. at 277–78.
The first prong is satisfied when a plaintiff demonstrates that his speech involved an issue of social, political, or other interest to a community. Urofsky v. Gilmore, 216 F.3d 401, 406 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc). To determine whether the issue was social, political, or of interest to a community, courts examine the speech’s content, context, and form in view of the entire record. Id. The Fourth Circuit concluded that at least some of the content of plaintiff’s posts and “likes” were matters of public concern because the public has an interest in the opinions of public employees. Although not all of the postings were of public concern, the Fourth Circuit advocated examining the entirety of the speech in context and therefore proceeded to the second prong of the Mcvey analysis.
The Mcvey Factors Weighed More Heavily in Favor of the Defendant
The Fourth Circuit next balanced the plaintiff’s interest in speaking about matters of public concern with the government’s interest in providing efficient and effective public services. The Fourth Circuit used the Mcvey multifactor test to weigh the following considerations: whether a public employee’s speech (1) impaired the maintenance of discipline by supervisors; (2) impaired harmony among coworkers; (3) damaged close personal relationships; (4) impeded the performance of the public employee’s duties; (5) interfered with the operation of the institution; (6) undermined the mission of the institution; (7) was communicated to the public or to coworkers in private; (8) conflicted with the responsibilities of the employee within the institution; and (9) abused the authority and public accountability that the employee’s role entailed. McVey, 157 F.3d at 278.
The Fourth Circuit held that all of the factors weighed in favor of the defendant. The first factor was satisfied because plaintiff was a chief battalion, a leadership position, and allowing plaintiff to violate the Policy and Code without repercussions would encourage others to engage in similar violations. The second and third factors weighed in the defendant’s favor because several minority firefighters issued complaints and refused to work with the plaintiff after the posts. Similarly, the fourth factor weighed in the government’s favor because of the plaintiff’s responsibilities as a leader. The plaintiff’s leadership duties depended on his subordinates taking him seriously and looking to him as an example. By violating the policies he was supposed to uphold, the plaintiff failed to act as a leader and carry out his duties as chief battalion. Finally, plaintiff’s actions also “undermined community trust” by advocating violence against certain groups of people. Community trust and preventing violence are central to the defendant’s mission because the defendant’s function is to protect the community. Therefore, although plaintiff’s speech did involve some matters of public concern, the matters were not of sufficient gravity to outweigh all nine factors of the Mcvey multifactor test. Thus, the government’s interest in effectively providing public services outweighed the plaintiff’s interest in speech about public concerns.
The District Court’s Dismissal of the Facial Challenge on Mootness Grounds Was Proper
While defendant repealed all the challenged sections of the Policy and Code, a party’s voluntary repeal of provisions can only moot an action if the wrongful behavior can be reasonably expected not to recur. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the facial challenge for mootness because the current Fire Chief issued a sworn affidavit asserting that the defendant will not revert to the former Policy or Code. Additionally, the defendant’s counsel at oral argument declared that the defendant has no hint of an intent to return to the former guidelines. The Fourth Circuit held that these formal declarations were sufficient to meet the defendant’s mootness burden.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed both the district court’s grant of summary judgment and its grant of a motion to dismiss on mootness grounds.