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Santarlas v. City of Coleman

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Ocala Division

July 20, 2018




         This First Amendment retaliation action, is before the Court on the City of Coleman, Fla. and Mayor Milton Hill's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 49). Plaintiff Thomas Santarlas's original complaint-which then included co-Plaintiff Robert Bernhard-proceeded under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Doc. 1), but was dismissed as a shotgun pleading (Docs. 23, 25). Santarlas and Bernhard filed an amended complaint (Doc. 27). The Court partially granted Defendants' motion to dismiss the amended complaint, including dismissing all of Bernhard's claims, but left intact Santarlas's First Amendment retaliation claims against the City and Hill in his individual capacity. (Docs. 34, 43). Following answers from both the City and Hill (Docs. 45, 46), Defendants filed this motion, to which Santarlas responded (Doc. 53). Defendants then filed a reply to Santarlas's response (Doc. 58), and Santarlas filed a sur-reply (Doc. 61).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Until Hill disbanded the City's police force in February 2014, Santarlas worked as a reserve police officer-including, at one point, acting chief of police-for the City. (Doc. 27 ¶¶ 7, 9; Doc. 53 at 8). His primary duties, and the principal reason he joined the City's police force, centered on writing and managing financial grants for the police department. (Id. ¶ 7). The bulk of Santarlas's amended complaint details his many attempts to procure equipment for the police department, as well as Defendants' recurrent efforts to thwart him. (Id. ¶¶ 8-16). Santarlas alleges that Defendants repeatedly denied him access to information that would have permitted him to inexpensively acquire much-needed supplies for the police department. (Id.). He further recounts Defendants' misallocation of public funds and his attempts to inform the appropriate authorities. (Id.). After a series of apparently unpleasant encounters with Santarlas, Hill dismissed him and disbanded the City's police department; Hill then contracted with the Sumter County Sheriff's Office to fulfill the City's law enforcement needs. (Id. ¶¶ 8-9; Doc. 53 at 19). Santarlas's response to Defendants' motion for summary judgment features an extended retelling of these same events. (Doc. 53 at 2-24). Yet at bottom, Santarlas alleges that following an extended disagreement between himself and Defendants about grants, he uncovered possible evidence that they misappropriated public funds; he then complained to the State Attorney's Office about what he discovered and was fired in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights.[1] (Id.).

         Defendants argue three points in their motion for summary judgment. First, Santarlas is not entitled to First Amendment protection because he did not speak as a private citizen about an issue of public concern. (Doc. 49 at 13). Second, as it applies to the City, Santarlas cannot demonstrate a policy or custom of retaliation. (Id. at 18). Third, pertaining to Hill, the mayor is entitled to qualified immunity. (Id. at 20). In response, Santarlas appears to argue that allegations of government mismanagement are, on their face, matters of public concern.[2] (Doc. 53 at 25). He further asserts (again, without citation to legal authority) that because he used his own computer, worked after regular business hours, and appeared at City council meetings in civilian clothing, he functioned as a private citizen and not a government employee. (Id. at 26). Lastly, Santarlas argues that Hill is not entitled to qualified immunity because he engaged in viewpoint-based discrimination. (Doc. 61 at 6).


         The First Amendment permits government entities to regulate their employees' expression much more stringently than they may regulate private citizens' speech. Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 140 (1983); Pickering v. Bd. of Educ. of Twp. High Sch. Dist., 391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968). In the context of retaliation suits, government employers are afforded broad discretion in their employment decisions. Johnson v. Clifton, 74 F.3d 1087, 1092 (11th Cir. 1996).

         Nevertheless, a government employer may not dismiss or demote a public employee in retaliation for constitutionally protected expression. Bryson v. City of Waycross, 888 F.2d 1562, 1565 (11th Cir. 1989). Although public employees “must accept certain limitations on [their] freedom[s], ” Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 418 (2006), they do not “relinquish the First Amendment rights [they] would otherwise enjoy as citizens to comment on matters of public interest.” Pickering, 391 U.S. at 568. The goal, therefore, is to find “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.” Id.

         In finding that balance, the Supreme Court applies a two-step analysis to ascertain whether speech from a public employee is protected by the First Amendment:

The first requires determining whether the employee spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern. If the answer is no, the employee has no First Amendment cause of action based on . . . her employer's reaction to the speech. If the answer is yes, then the possibility of a First Amendment claim arises. The question becomes whether the relevant government entity had an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from any other member of the general public [based on the government's interests as an employer].[3]

Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 418 (citations omitted). Both of these steps are matters of law, resolvable by this Court. See, e.g., Moss v. City of Pembroke Pines, 782 F.3d 613, 618 (11th Cir. 2015); Battle v. Bd. of Regents, 468 F.3d 755, 760 (11th Cir. 2006).

         The threshold question is comprised of two components. For a government employee's speech to be constitutionally protected, the employee must speak (1) as a private citizen and (2) on a matter of public concern. Boyce, 510 F.3d at 1342. Put another way, the Eleventh Circuit in Alves v. Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, 804 F.3d 1149, 1160 (11th Cir. 2015), declared that courts must consider both the “role the speaker occupied” and “the content of the speech” to ascertain whether the putative government retaliation at issue necessitates the Pickering test, which balances rights of the speaker against the practical considerations of government operations. Pickering, 391 U.S. at 568.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Private Citizen Speech Versus Public Employee Speech

         The threshold inquiry considers “whether the speech at issue was made primarily in the employee's role as citizen, or primarily in the role of employee.” Kurtz v. Vickrey, 855 F.2d 723, 727 (11th Cir. 1988). In 2006, the Supreme Court in Garcetti v. Ceballos held that “when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.” Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 421.Furthermore, “the First Amendment does not prohibit managerial discipline based on an employee's expressions made pursuant to official responsibilities.” Id. at 424. Garcetti tasks district courts with asking “whether the speech at issue owes its existence to the employee's professional responsibilities.” Id. at 421

         In Garcetti, a deputy district attorney wrote a memo complaining about the methods his supervisors used in obtaining a warrant, suggesting that they engaged in illegal conduct. Id. at 414. After several phone conversations, more memos, and a “heated” meeting among those involved, the attorney faced an apparent series of retaliatory responses from his supervisors. Id. The Supreme Court found that because writing memos was part of the attorney's ...

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