A federal jury in Gainesville, Florida deliberated for less than 40 minutes this past Friday evening before returning a $400,000 verdict in favor of our client, a former deputy who spoke critically, but legitimately, of the Sheriff’s operation of the agency. After he spoke out, the deputy was investigated multiple times for alleged misconduct. Each of those investigations, the evidence showed, was baseless and orchestrated by the Sheriff in retaliation.
As the judge instructed the jury:
Under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, a public employee has a right to freedom of speech on matters of public concern. And it is therefore unlawful for a public employer to take action against a public employee because the employee exercises his First Amendment rights by speaking on a matter of public concern.
(Be mindful, if you’re an employee for a private-sector employer, that you don’t have the same free-speech rights as city, county, state and federal workers. Ask us if you’d like guidance on that.)
The Sheriff’s Office, rather than take responsibility for its actions, instead told the jury that our client “had a dark side” that no one knew about. That, the Sheriff’s lawyers told the jury, is why they had to investigate and then fire him. It was sheer nonsense.
And the jury dismissed it as nonsense, quickly. It had to alarm the defense that the jury had hardly had time to sit down before it announced it had decided the outcome.
It’s a perfect example why we do what we do as civil rights lawyers. And if you/ve encountered a similar problem when speaking out in the workplace, ask us for help. We can.