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Eleventh Circuit reverses summary judgment for City for Doral in civil rights case involving alleged wrongful termination of plaintiff for exercising right of political association

On July 19, 2017, in Rodriguez v. City of Doral, No. 15-1595, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment entered for the defendant City of Doral in a 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 civil rights case involving alleged wrongful termination of plaintiff for exercising his constitutional right of political association. The plaintiff, a police officer for the City of Doral, was friends with a city councilwoman who was the purported political enemy of the town’s mayor. He alleged in his lawsuit that he was forced to resign because of his political association. The district court granted summary judgment to the City, concluding that the plaintiff had voluntarily resigned so he could not establish an adverse employment action in his retaliation claim.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit cited previous U.S. Supreme Court and Eleventh Circuit decisions holding that that a government may not fire a public employee solely because of his political association or beliefs unless “the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved.” Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, 518 (1980); see also Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 357, 362 (1976) (plurality opinion); id. at 375 (Stewart, J., concurring); McKinley v. Kaplan, 262 F.3d 1146, 1149 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing McCabe v. Sharrett, 12 F.3d 1558, 1565-67 (11th Cir. 1994)).

The Court then articulated the elements of proof of a political association claim: “[t]o prevail on a First Amendment political-association claim, a plaintiff must show that (1) he engaged in constitutionally protected political affiliation or held constitutionally protected political beliefs, and (2) his protected conduct was a ‘substantial or motivating factor’ in the decision to take adverse action against the plaintiff.” Quoting Holley v. Seminole Cty. Sch. Dist., 755 F.2d 1492, 1500 (11th Cir. 1985) (citing Mt. Healthy City Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 287 (1977)). If the plaintiff meets these requirements, the burden shifts to the employer, who must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have made the same employment decision, even had the plaintiff never engaged in the protected conduct. Holley, at 1492. (citing Mt. Healthy, 429 U.S. at 287; Paschal v. Fla. Pub. Emp’t Relations Comm’n, 666 F.2d 1381, 1384 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 457 U.S. 1109 (1982)).

In evaluating the voluntariness of the plaintiff’s resignation, the Eleventh Circuit drew upon Hargray v. City of Hallandale, 57 F.3d 1560, 1567 (1995), a previous decision analyzing the due process ramifications of employee terminations and concluded that two situations warrant deeming an employee's resignation involuntary: (1) where the employer forces the resignation by coercion or duress; or (2) where the employer obtains the resignation by deceiving or misrepresenting a material fact to the employee. As set forth in Hargray, the determination regarding coercion or distress is guided by a non-exhaustive list of five factors: (1) whether the employee was given some alternative to resignation; (2) whether the employee understood the nature of the choice he was given; (3) whether the employee was given a reasonable time in which to choose; (4) whether the employee was permitted to select the effective date of the resignation; and (5) whether the employee had the advice of counsel. The Court noted in this context that there was evidence that the plaintiff only resigned after being presented with a termination letter by the City and being given five minutes to consider whether he preferred a voluntary resignation so that an involuntary termination did not stain his employment record. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that although the plaintiff had resigned his position with the City, he had presented sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to conclude that the resignation was so involuntary that it amounted to a constructive discharge.