Corrections Officer's Leak to Press Was Grounds For Termination - U.S. Fifth Circuit
U.S. Fifth Circuit - The FindLaw 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Corrections Officer's Leak to Press Was Grounds For Termination

The obvious case is, well, obvious.

Shift Sergeant Rodricus Carltez Hurst worked in a Lee County, Mississippi jail. The operations manual at the jail stated that only the Sheriff or his "designee" could talk to the media, though the rule doesn't seem to have been enforced all that well -- the record contained multiple instances where Hurst had spoken to the media during his tenure at the jail.

This time, however, he provided information on a local college player, Chad Bumphis, who had been arrested on New Year's Day after a "big group fight" at a local bar. Sgt. Hurst was quoted in a local newspaper's coverage, which is still available online. Hurst was fired shortly thereafter for violating the Department's media relations policy.

Want to spend more time practicing, and less time advertising? Leave the marketing to the experts.

Thanks SCOTUS!

The issue of when an employee's speech is in the course of employment (and therefore subject to discipline) had long-since been a grey area in Supreme Court jurisprudence, but was clarified somewhat this year in Lane v. Franks, where the court observed:

"[T]he mere fact that a citizen's speech concerns information acquired by virtue of his public employment does not transform that speech into employee--rather than citizen--speech. The critical question under Garcetti is whether the speech at issue is itself ordinarily within the scope of an employee's duties, not whether it merely concerns those duties."

And here, it was pretty clear that Hurst was acting in the scope of his duties -- he testified that he regularly fielded calls from reporters, and was explicitly authorized to provide publicly available information, such as the name of the arrestee, the charge, the amount of the arrestee's bond, and whether the Department had released the arrestee. In addition, with authorization, he could make other statements as a "designee."

Hurst's leak to the media began with this regular duty of fielding press calls, a ton of which came in after Bumphis was arrested. However, he went too far with his interview, an interview that was, again, part of his regular duties, which makes the speech employee speech and subject to employer discipline.

Narrow Line: 'Concerning Duties'

Franks, while clarifying the employee versus citizen speech somewhat, also complicates the issue by adding the possibility of speech "concerning duties." In Franks, the employee was subpoenaed against his will and forced to testify concerning an internal investigation that he conducted at his workplace. The Court held that the speech wasn't actionable, as while it concerned his workplace duties, it wasn't pursuant to (or in the course of) his day-to-day work.

Hurst, as part of his regular duties, answered calls requesting information about inmates. This was merely an extension of that regular duty, rather than speech about something he learned while at work -- it's a narrow line, but an important one.

Related Resources: