Colleen Bradley, director of budget and financial planning at a Pennsylvania university, had a problem with the budgets.
They were "false budgets" designed to increase taxpayer-funded appropriations, she alleged in Bradley v. West Chester University of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. When she complained about them, Bradley said, she was fired.
A trial court dismissed her case, and an appeals court affirmed. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals said it was about government immunity and the limits of free speech.
In her whistleblower suit, Bradley said university officials retaliated against her for trying to rectify a scheme over a three-year period. She said the university budgets were "willfully and falsely understated" to increase appropriations.
Bradley alleged she was fired for exercising her rights to free speech when she complained about the problem. She also claimed damages for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
A trial judge dismissed her case, concluding the defendants were immune from civil liability. On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed.
However, the appeals court disagreed with the trial judge's finding that Bradley's speech was protected. The appeals panel said public employees do not have free speech for what they say as part of their jobs.
Citizen v. Employee
Writing for the court, Judge Matthew Brann said government employees enjoy free speech protections when they speak as citizens on matters of public concern. If they are speaking as employees, however, they have "no First Amendment cause of action based on his or her employer's reaction to the speech."
Bradley was paid to critically evaluate the university's budget process, the appeals court said. That included scrutinizing numbers for the enrollment management committee, when she substituted her supervisor's budget with her own "reality."
"[T]hat is why we hold that she was speaking pursuant to her official duties as a public employee at that meeting, and not as a citizen," the judges said.