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Eschert v. City of Charlotte

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

June 2, 2017

CRYSTAL ESCHERT, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF CHARLOTTE, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Frank D. Whitney, Chief United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant, City of Charlotte's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law (Doc. No. 89) and supporting memorandum (Doc. No. 90). Plaintiff filed a memorandum in opposition (Doc. No. 91), and the matter is ripe for review. The Court finds that a hearing is not necessary to resolve the issues and, for the reasons that follow, DENIES Defendant's Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In the interests of judicial economy, the Court declines to provide a thorough recitation of the testimony, evidence, and arguments presented at the six-day trial before a jury in this matter. In sum, the causes of action centered on Defendant's termination of Plaintiff, a fire investigator for the Charlotte Fire Department (“CFD”). Defendant contended that it terminated Plaintiff because she violated its social media policy by posting two racially inflammatory comments on Facebook (“Facebook Posts”). Plaintiff, on the other hand, claimed that Defendant actually fired her because she complained to her father-in-law and City Councilwoman Claire Fallon about health and safety issues in a new CFD building and about Defendant's mismanagement of money related to that building (“Building Complaints”).

         Relevant here, Plaintiff brought two causes of action against Defendant alleging that Defendant retaliated against her for exercising her First Amendment right to free speech (“First Amendment Retaliation”): one claim was based on her Facebook Posts, and the other claim was based on her Building Complaints.[1] At the close of all evidence, Defendant moved for judgment as a matter of law. The Court granted Defendant's motion concerning her claim for First Amendment Retaliation based on the Facebook Posts. The Court ruled that the Facebook Posts were not protected by the First Amendment because Plaintiff failed to establish that her interest in that speech outweighed Defendant's interest in providing effective and efficient services to the public. (Doc. No. 91-1, pp. 28-31). The Court deferred ruling on Plaintiff's claim for First Amendment Retaliation based on the Building Complaints and submitted that and other remaining issues to the jury.

         With regard to Plaintiff's claim for First Amendment Retaliation based on the Building Complaints, the Court asked the jury five questions, including two special interrogatories to assist the Court in determining whether the Building Complaints constituted protected speech. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff, finding that (a) Plaintiff's Building Complaints were a motivating factor in Defendant's decision to terminate her employment, (b) Defendant would not have terminated Plaintiff's employment in the absence of the Building Complaints, and (c) Plaintiff was entitled to $309, 692 on that claim. (Doc. No. 86). The jury further found that (d) it was reasonable to believe that Plaintiff's Building Complaints caused, or could have caused, disharmony or disruption in the workplace, (e) but it was not reasonable to believe they impaired her ability to perform her duties. (Doc. No. 86).[2]

         Defendant renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that the Court should rule that the Building Complaints were not protected by the First Amendment, a question of law that the Court must answer before judgment can be entered in this case. The Court ordered the parties to brief the matter. Discussion of other background information and evidence is set forth more fully below as needed to explain the Court's decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A party that moved for judgment as a matter of law under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a) before the case is submitted to the jury may renew its motion after trial under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). A Rule 50(b) motion is properly granted “if the nonmoving party failed to make a showing on an essential element of his case with respect to which he had the burden of proof.” Wheatley v. Wicomico Cnty., Md., 390 F.3d 328, 332 (4th Cir. 2004) (quoting Singer v. Dungan, 45 F.3d 823, 827 (4th Cir. 1995)). The Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Med. Ctr., 290 F.3d 639, 645 (4th Cir. 2002).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The legal principles governing First Amendment claims by public employees are well-settled. “A state cannot condition public employment on a basis that infringes the employee's constitutionally protected interest in freedom of expression.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 142 (1983). Courts must “seek ‘a balance between the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.'” Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 142 (1983) (quoting Pickering v. Bd. of Educ., 391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968)); Grutzmacher v. Howard Cnty., 851 F.3d 332, 341 (4th Cir. 2017) (“Protection of the public interest in having debate on matters of public importance is at the heart of the First Amendment.” (quoting McVey v. Stacy, 157 F.3d 271, 277 (4th Cir. 1998))). In that vein, public employees do not surrender their First Amendment right to speak on matters of public concern simply because they are employed by the government. Grutzmacher, 851 F.3d at 341. To the contrary, because “government employees are often in the best position to know what ails the agencies for which they work, ” the Supreme Court “has repeatedly underscored the considerable value of encouraging, rather than inhibiting, speech by public employees.” Id. (quoting Hunter v. Town of Mocksville, 789 F.3d 389, 396 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted); but see Connick, 461 U.S. at 138 (“[T]he First Amendment does not require a public office to be run as a roundtable for employee complaints over internal office affairs”).

         With these principles in mind, the Fourth Circuit recently reaffirmed that to state a claim for First Amendment retaliation, a plaintiff must satisfy the three-prong test set forth in McVey by showing that: (1) she was a “public employee . . . speaking as a citizen upon a matter of public concern;” (2) her “interest in speaking upon the matter of public concern outweighed the government's interest in providing effective and efficient services to the public;” and (3) her “speech was a substantial factor in the employer's termination decision.” Grutzmacher, 851 F.3d at 342 (quoting McVey, 157 F.3d at 277-78)). The first two prongs, which determine whether the speech is protected by the First Amendment, are questions of law for the Court, while the third prong is a question of fact for a jury. Lane v. Anderson, 660 F. App'x 185, 191 (4th Cir. 2016).

         A.

         The first question of law is whether Plaintiff, a public employee, spoke as a private citizen upon a matter of public ...


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