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4th Circuit Decides Public Employee First Amendment Case

Published by on June 4, 2009

In Fields v. Prater, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court decision by concluding that plaintiff Tammy Fields was wrongfully denied a position as the local director of a county department of social services based on her political affiliation.  This was in violation of her First Amendment rights.  However, the court stated […]

In Fields v. Prater, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court decision by concluding that plaintiff Tammy Fields was wrongfully denied a position as the local director of a county department of social services based on her political affiliation.  This was in violation of her First Amendment rights.  However, the court stated that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity based on the lack of clarity in the law at the time of the decision.  More after the break.

The case involved the selection of a local director for the Buchanan County Department of Social Services (BCDSS).  Virginia’s system for administering social services differs from that of other states in many regards, particularly by virtue of its more centralized structure and its greater separation from local departments.  The plaintiff’s suit alleged under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that the defendants conspired to prevent her from being hired as the local director based on her affiliation with the Republican Party. 

In 2006 when the BCDSS local director position became open, the interviewing board evaluated Fields and six other prospective candidates.  After the interview process, Fields received the highest score while another candidate (Judy Holland) received the lowest score.  However, by January of 2007, the Board of Supervisors, the county’s governing body, unanimously voted for a resolution to dissolve the existing administrative and advisory boards, creating in its place a new seven-member administrative board.  This new body, known as the Local Board was comprised of seven individuals chosen by members of the Board of Supervisors from their respective districts.  Soon thereafter, the new Local Board interviewed three candidates, including Fields and Holland.  The Board hired Holland.

After revisiting case law on the issues, the court sided with the plaintiff in finding a violation of her constitutional rights.  Two cases were pertinent in this inquiry: Branti v. Finkel (445 U.S. 507 (1980)) and Stott v. Haworth (916 F.2d 134 (4th Cir. 1990)).  Branti asserts that “the ultimate inquiry is not whether the label ‘policymaker’ or ‘confidential’ fits a particular position; rather, the question is whether the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved.”  Stott established a two pronged test: (1) the court asks whether the position involved decisionmaking on issues where there is room for political disagreement on goals or their implementation, and (2) if so, then examine the responsibilities of the position to determine whether it resembles that of a policymaker or any office holder whose function is such that party affiliation is an equally appropriate requirement. 

The court was not convinced through its analysis of the facts that BCDSS local directors are policymakers or office holders such that political affiliation is an appropriate measure of effective job performance.  Furthermore, the court found that a) Virginia explicitly designated the local director position as non-partisan (in handbooks and on the application) and b) the duties and responsibilities of a local director do not contain any reference to political party ideologies.

However, to defeat the defendants’ claim of qualified immunity, the court stated that the plaintiff must show that defendants violated clearly established constitutional rights that a reasonable person would have known.  The court referred to the existing law as confusing and conflicting.  Although there is one analogous case, McConnell v. Adams, the court here refrained from imposing monetary liability on the defendants.  The court noted that the Virginia social service system and Branti seek to protect important goals, but qualified immunity also protects essential considerations.  Among other things, it serves the purpose of shielding defendants from retroactive penalties for laws of which they did not have proper notice.

Contributed by K.C. Osuji

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