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Teacher's Complaints About Health Issues and Unsanitary Conditions In Her Classroom Did Not Constitute First Amendment Protected Speech

December 18, 2012

A public school teacher alleged that the New York City Department of Education retaliated against her for engaging in protected speech. Specifically, the teacher complained to colleagues that she had contracted “scabies”, in her opinion, from the unhygienic conditions in her classroom. The teacher alleged that her complaints motivated the defendant to take adverse employment actions against her by changing her work schedule and cancelling one of her classes.

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York found that the teacher’s complaints did not constitute First Amendment protected speech and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant.

In reaching its decision, the Court relied heavily on Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006) which held that public employees speak as employees, and not citizens, when they “make statements pursuant to their official duties.” Id. at 421. A speech may be deemed “pursuant to” a public employee’s official duties if it is “part-and-parcel of [her] concerns about [her] ability to properly execute [her duties].” Id. at 424. The Court, citing Weintraub v. Bd. of Educ. of the City Sch. Dist. of the City of N.Y., 593 F.3d 196, 2014 (2d. Cir. 2010), also stressed that the “lack of a citizen analogue” to the form of the plaintiff’s speech also “bears on whether the public employee is speaking as a citizen.”

Relying on the above analysis, the Court held that the teacher spoke as an employee rather than a private citizen, particularly in light of the fact that she voiced her concerns to school administrators rather than to the general public and that most of her complaints were made through an internal complaint process and illness related forms for which there was no “relevant citizen analogue.” The Court determined that the teacher’s complaints centered on her ability to execute her duties as a teacher because they were aimed at resolving her health concerns so she could continue to teach.

Lastly, the Court found no evidence supporting a nexus between the teacher’s speech and the alleged adverse employment actions.

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