Lane v. Franks

RESPONDENT:Steven Franks
LOCATION: Central Alabama Community College

DOCKET NO.: 13-483
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)

CITATION: 570 US (2013)
GRANTED: Jan 17, 2014
ARGUED: Apr 28, 2014
DECIDED: Jun 19, 2014

Facts of the case

In 2006, Edward Lane accepted a probationary position as Director of the Community Intensive Training for Youth (“CITY”) program at Central Alabama Community College (“CACC”). He subsequently terminated the employment of Suzanne Schmitz, a state representative who had not performed any work for the program despite being listed on CITY’s payroll. Lane also testified against Schmitz in two federal criminal trials between 2008 and 2009. In January 2009, Steve Franks, the president of CACC, sent termination letters to 29 CITY employees, including Lane, but rescinded the terminations of 27 of those employees within a few days. Lane sued Franks in federal district court and alleged that his termination from the CITY program was in retaliation for his testimony against Schmitz and therefore violated his First Amendment right to free speech. The district court ruled that the doctrine of qualified immunity shielded Franks from liability and granted summary judgment in his favor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed but declined to reach a decision on the qualified immunity question. Instead, the appellate court held that the First Amendment did not protect Lane’s testimony because it was made pursuant to his official duties as a public employee.


(1)Does the First Amendment protect a public employee’s truthful, sworn testimony that was compelled by subpoena and not a part of the employee’s ordinary job responsibilities?

(2) Does the doctrine of qualified immunity preclude Lane from claiming that Franks terminated his employment in an act of retaliation?

Media for Lane v. Franks

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 28, 2014 in Lane v. Franks

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 19, 2014 in Lane v. Franks

Justice Sotomayor has our opinion this morning in Case 13-483, Lane v. Franks.

Petitioner Edward Lane was hired as the director of a statewide program for underprivileged youth, operated by Central Alabama Community College.

Upon accepting this position, Lane conducted an audit of the program’s expenses and discovered that Suzanne Schmitz, an Alabama State Representative — Representative on the program’s payroll had not been reporting to work.

Lane terminated her employment.

Shortly thereafter, federal authorities indicted Schmitz on criminal charges and Lane testified under subpoena regarding the events that led to his termination of Schmitz.

He was later fired by respondent Franks who was then serving as president of the college.

Lane sued Franks and his individual and official capacities under Section 1983 alleging that Franks violated First Amendment by firing him in retaliation for his testimony.

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Franks and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed holding that Lane’s testimony was not protected under the First Amendment.

It reasons that Lane did not speak as a citizen when he testified because he acted pursuant to his official duties when he investigated Schmitz’s employment and later fired her.

The Eleventh Circuit erred.

Lane’s sworn testimony is entitled to First Amendment protection because it is speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern.

Truthful testimony under oath by a public employee outside the scope of his ordinary job duties is speech as a citizen for First Amendment purposes.

Sworn testimony and judicial proceedings is a quintessential example of citizen’s speech for a simple reason.

Anyone who testifies in Court bares an obligation to the Court and society at large to tell the truth.

That obligation is distinct and independent from any separate obligations a testifying public employee might have to his employer.

In holding that Lane did not speak as a citizen when he testified, this Eleventh Circuit read our holding in Garcetti far too broadly.

The Eleventh Circuit reasoned that because Lane learned of the subject matter of his testimony in the course of his employment, his testimony as employee speech rather than citizen speech.

But the critical question under our case Garcetti is whether the speech at issue is ordinarily within the scope of an employee’s duties, not whether it really concerns those duties.

Lane’s testimony is also speech on a matter of public concern, whether speech involves matters of public concerns on the content formed and context of the speech.

Here, Lane testified about corruption in a public program and misuse of state funds.

His testimony thus — thus involved a matter of significant public concern and the forming context of his speech fortified that conclusion.

We therefore hold that Lane’s truthful sworn testimony is speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern.

Because respondents do not assert any countervailing government interest Lane’s speech in entitled to First Amendment protection.

Our decision acknowledges a reality that has long informed our — our precedents.Public employees are best positioned to bring to light government wrong-doing and issues that plague their employers.

Indeed speech by public employees on subject matter related to their employment hold special value precisely because those employees gain knowledge of matters of public concern through their employment.

It goes without saying that when public employees testify on matters of public concern, they should not face the choice of testifying truthfully or losing their jobs.Such a result would only harm public employees individually, would not only harm public employees individually, it would harm society’s interest in public accountability.

Now even though Lane’s testimony is entitled to First Amendment protection, respondent Franks is entitled to qualified immunity for the claims against him in his individual capacity.At the time of Lane’s firing, the constitutional right was not clearly established in Franks’ jurisdiction.

As to the claims against respondent in Burrow in her official capacity, which were initially brought — initially brought against Franks when he served as president of the college.

The Eleventh Amendment declined to consider the District Court’s dismissal of them and the parties have not asked us to consider them here.

The judgment of the United States Courts of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is therefore affirmed in part and reversed in part and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion.

The opinion is for unanimous court.

Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion in which Justices Scalia and Alito joined.