Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri

PETITIONER:Borough of Duryea, Pennsylvania, et al.
RESPONDENT:harles J. Guarnieri
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

DOCKET NO.: 09-1476
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 564 US (2011)
GRANTED: Oct 12, 2010
ARGUED: Mar 22, 2011
DECIDED: Jun 20, 2011

Daniel R. Ortiz – for the petitioners
Eric Schnapper – for the respondent
Joseph R. Palmore – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae supporting the petitioners

Facts of the case

In 2005, Duryea police chief Charles Guarnieri filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Pennsylvania borough, alleging that council members retaliated against him because he had successfully challenged a 2003 decision to fire him. Guarnieri had challenged his firing through arbitration and was reinstated to his position as chief in 2005. His suit alleged that council then issued 11 employment directives, which he claimed placed humiliating restrictions on him, to retaliate against him. He further alleged the borough improperly withheld overtime pay from him and had improperly delayed issuing health insurance benefits. A jury heard the case in April 2008 and awarded Guarnieri $45,358 in compensatory damages and $52,000 in punitive damages. The borough appealed, arguing the evidence did not support the verdict. In February 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the overall verdict entered by a federal jury, but it overturned the panel’s award of $52,000 in punitive damages. The ruling differs from decisions by all 10 other federal circuits and four state supreme courts.


May state and local government employees sue their employers for retaliation under the First Amendment’s Petition Clause when they petition the government on matters of private concern?

Media for Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 22, 2011 in Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 20, 2011 in Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This case concerns the extent of protection that the Petition Clause of the First Amendment grants to public employees when they have a routine dispute with their government employer.

Petitions are a form of expression.Government employees who invoked the Petition Clause in most cases could also invoke the Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

Now in the Speech Clause case, to show that the employer interfered with protected rights, the employee, as a general rule, must show that his or her speech was on a matter of public concern.

Here, the issue is whether that test applies when the employee invokes the Petition Clause.

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit is held but the public concern test does not apply in those instances.

Charles Guarnieri, the respondent here, filed a union grievance challenging his termination as Chief of Police for the Borough of Duryea, the town of about 4,600 persons in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

An arbitrator ordered the respondent reinstated.

Upon his return, the counsel issued 11 directives instructing him in the performance of his duties.

For instance, one directive stated that the municipal building is a smoke-free building and that the police department is not exempt.

Respondent filed this lawsuit against the Borough and Borough Counsel and individual members of the counsel under 42 U.S.C. 1983, he claimed that his grievance was a petition protected by the Petition Clause and he alleged that the directives were unlawful retaliation.

And after the suit was filed, the counsel denied a request by respondent for overtime.

He amended the complaint to allege that his 1983 lawsuit was a petition and that the denial of overtime also constituted retaliation for his having filed the lawsuit.

The jury found in favor of respondent, defendants appealed on the ground that respondent’s grievances and lawsuit did not address matters of public concern, but the Court of Appeals rejected that argument and it affirmed.

This Court now concludes that the judgment must be reversed.

The public concern test developed in Speech Clause cases, reconciles the employee’s First Amendment right and the Government employer’s legitimate interest in performing this mission.

The Government has a substantial interest in ensuring that all of these operations are efficient and effective, the Government interest that justify a cautious in restraining approach under the Speech Clause or justice relevant under the Petition Clause.

Petitions no less than speech can interfere with the effective and efficient operation of Government.

Adoption of a different rule for Petition Clause claims would provide a ready means for public employees to circumvent the protections of the public concern test.

Now, the Petition Clause undoubtedly does apply in the context of a personal grievance.

Petitions to the Government, nonetheless, assumed an added dimension when they seek to advance political, social or other ideas of interest to the community as a whole.

Public employees are members of the community most likely to have informed and definite opinions about a wide range of matters related directly or indirectly to their employment.Just as the public has the right to hear the views of public employees, the public has the right to the benefit of employees for participation in petitioning activity.

The framework used to govern Speech Clause claims by public employees when applied to the Petition Clause will protect both the interest of the Government and the First Amendment right.

Because the Court of Appeals did not find it necessary to apply this framework, there has been no determination as to how it would apply in the context of this case.

This Court need not consider that question in the first instance rather the judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Thomas has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment impart and dissenting impart.