Most of us know that at-will employment means your boss can fire you for just about any reason. And most of us know that complaining openly about your boss, or management in general, is not the smartest thing to do if you want to keep your job. However, we should all be able to voice our opinions or complaints without fear of retribution, at least under the First Amendment, right? A recent case out of Greenville, Mississippi may cause you to reconsider being vocal about your employer, especially if you are a government employee.
Grasiosi v. City of Greenville
It is customary that when a police officer has been killed in the line of duty, the police department sends a representative to the funeral of that officer. Yet, when an officer of the Greenville, Mississippi Police Department was killed last year, the city did not send anyone to his funeral, which was being held three hours away. Susan Grasiosi, a former Sergeant and employee of the police department for more than 25 years, was upset by the failure of the department and posted a complaint on her Facebook page. Although she did not mention anyone by name, her criticism of the leaders of the police department was clear and it wasn't long before she was terminated.
This apparent retaliation may not be so surprising; however, the basis for her termination might be. Apparently, the Greenville Police Department has a policy against complaining. The policy states that "chronic complaining about operations to the extent that supervisors must spend excessive time dealing with problems or issues caused by complaints" can lead to termination. The legality of this policy may seem questionable, but it exists.
Violation of free speech?
Sgt. Grasiosi filed a lawsuit challenging her termination as a violation of her First Amendment right to free speech. Although she is a government employee, she still has a right to comment on issues of public concern, under the Constitution. However, that right is always balanced between the right to speak freely and the employer's right to maintain an efficient working environment. This is especially true when you are dealing with a paramilitary organization such as a police force. Because of this distinction, the court found that Grasiosi's comments were not protected. Instead of relating to a public concern, the court held that her comments were more about her personal concerns about her employer, rather than public policy.
Isn't retaliation unlawful?
In the employment law context, retaliation means taking an "adverse employment action" against an employee for "engaging in legally protected activity," and it is illegal. In the case of Sgt. Grasiosi, her termination may very well have been retaliatory. However, her conduct was not found by the court to be protected, so her termination was not unlawful. Had her speech been protected, she may have been successful in her lawsuit. And if she had not been a public employee (i.e., a police officer), her speech might very well have been protected.
That is because public employers are expected to maintain efficient operations for the benefit of its citizens. Therefore, it is deemed acceptable for government employers to discipline their employees for speech that might undermine the integrity of the office. That is the distinction that led to the dismissal of Sgt. Grasiosi's lawsuit. Whether you are a public employee or not, if you believe you are being retaliated against, you should speak to an experienced employment law attorney to discuss your rights.