FMR victory in sixth circuit court of appeals ensures client James Myer's FIRST AMENDMENT retaliation claims and state law tort claims against Centerville City Manager Wayne Davis and Police Chief Matt Brown will go forward.
On July 21, 2022, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision in favor of FMR client James Myers and rejected efforts by the City of Centerville’s City Manager Wayne Davis and Police Chief Matt Brown to have Mr. Myers’s First Amendment retaliation claim and state law claims against them dismissed in the early stages of the case.
A former City of Centerville police officer for over three decades, as the Court described, “[b]y nearly all accounts, James Myers was a model employee for the City of Centerville.” But after he reported several serious allegations of misconduct involving City of Centerville Police superiors Lt. Lavigne and former Police Chief Robertson and stood up for an acquaintance in the Public Works Department who he thought had been fired unfairly, the City suspended him for five days and eventually terminated his employment. Following his termination, the City issued a prejudicial, defamatory, and retaliatory press release falsely accusing Myers of engaging in and/or supporting bigotry.
In September 2020, Myers filed suit against the City of Centerville, City Manager Davis and Police Chief Brown, for retaliating against him in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech and asserted various state law claims, including violations of Ohio’s whistleblower statute, interference with business relations, and defamation.
Before the parties could engage in any meaningful discovery of the evidence and facts concerning the case, the City of Centerville, City Manager Davis, and Chief Brown filed a motion asking the federal District Court in Dayton to dismiss the complaint, claiming Davis and Brown were immune from being sued and arguing that Myers did not engage in protected speech. The District Court rejected the Defendants’ motion and ordered the case to proceed to discovery.
City Manager Davis and Chief Brown then appealed that ruling to the Sixth Circuit. They argued that the letter Myers had written detailing his concerns about the systemic and pervasive use of crude jokes and inappropriate language in the Centerville Public Works department was not protected by the First Amendment.
The Sixth Circuit found that the allegations in Myers’s complaint were more than sufficient to proceed forward, rejecting Defendants’ arguments on appeal. The Court found that Myers’s letter addressed a matter of public concern because it pointed out that the City of Centerville had tolerated the misbehavior he identified as involving many employees in the Public Works department over a long period of time, “something the public certainly has an interest in learning about.”
As for Myers’s state law claims, the Court likewise found that Davis and Brown were not entitled to dismissal of those claims under the Ohio immunity statute because his complaint passed the threshold for alleging improper conduct:
Myers alleged enough to clear this low bar. Among other things, Myers alleged that the defendants made false statement about him to the press, intentionally interfered with his relationship with the FBI, lied about previously instructing him not to interfere with the disciplinary proceedings of other employees, and lied about formally investigating his allegations against Lt. Lavigne and that those allegations were reviewed by a prosecutor. Further, Chief Brown assigned Lavigne to investigate Myers—even after Myers sought whistleblower protection against Lavigne. That left the fox guarding the henhouse.
Myers can pursue his First Amendment retaliation claims and his state law claims against the City of Centerville, as well as City Manager Davis and Chief Brown, and can continue to gather evidence through the discovery process on his claims against them.
To read the Sixth Circuit opinion see: https://www.opn.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/22a0160p-06.pdf