United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Ocala Division
TIMOTHY J. CORRIGAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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).
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. (Id.).
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. (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).
LEGAL STANDARD AND FIRST AMENDMENT PRINCIPLES
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).
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.”
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
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).
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.
Private Citizen Speech Versus Public Employee
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
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 ...