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Habib Sadid, An Individual v. Idaho State University

November 30, 2011


Appeal from the District Court of the Sixth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, in and for Bannock County. The Hon. David C. Nye, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eismann, Justice.

2011 Opinion No. 125

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

The judgment of the district court is affirmed in part and vacated in part.

This is an appeal from a summary judgment dismissing a complaint by an engineering professor who alleged that Idaho State University had retaliated against him because of his comments criticizing the administration that had been published in a local newspaper over several years and that the University had breached his employment contract. We affirm the summary judgment, but remand for determination of reasonable attorney fees on the breach of contract claim.


Factual Background

Habib Sadid ("Plaintiff") was a tenured professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at Idaho State University. He began working for the University in 1991, was given full tenure in 1993, and became a full professor in 1999. During the period from 2001 through 2008, Plaintiff publically criticized successive University administrations in guest columns, printed comments, a letter to the editor, and a paid advertisement, all of which were published in a local newspaper.

On September 29, 2008, Plaintiff filed this action against the University and a University administrator alleging that they retaliated against him for exercising his free speech rights, that the University breached his employment contract, and that the administrator defamed him. He later amended his complaint to add as defendants the former and current Provosts, the former and current Deans of the College of Engineering, the current Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the current University President.

The Defendants moved for summary judgment on various grounds, and the district court granted their motion. Plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration, which the court denied. The court awarded the Defendants court costs as a matter of right, but denied their request for an award of attorney fees. Plaintiff appealed the granting of summary judgment, and the Defendants cross-appealed the denial of their request for attorney fees.


Applicable Standards

When reviewing on appeal the granting of a motion for summary judgment, we apply the same standard used by the trial court in ruling on the motion. Infanger v. City of Salmon, 137 Idaho 45, 46-47, 44 P.3d 1100, 1101-02 (2002). We construe all disputed facts, and draw all reasonable inferences from the record, in favor of the non-moving party. Id. at 47, 44 P.3d at 1102. Summary judgment is appropriate only if the evidence in the record and any admissions show that there is no genuine issue of any material fact regarding the issues raised in the pleadings and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.

Plaintiff seeks damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on the ground that Defendants violated his freedom of speech guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Determining whether a public employer infringed upon its employee's constitutionally protected interest in freedom of expression requires the following analysis:

(a) Did the plaintiff make the statements at issue pursuant to his or her official duties as a public employee? Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 421 (2006). If so, the speech is not protected from employer discipline. Id.

(b) If not, does the court conclude, as a matter of law, that any of the plaintiff's speech addressed a matter of public concern, considering the content, form, and context of the statement(s) as revealed by the whole record? Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 147-48 & n.7 (1983). If none of the speech at issue addressed a matter of public concern, the speech was not protected from employer discipline. Id.

(c) If any of the speech did address a matter of public concern, has the plaintiff produced evidence from which the trier of fact could reasonably find that such speech was a substantial or motivating factor in adverse employment action? Id. at 149; Brown v. City of Pocatello, 148 Idaho 802, 806, 229 P.3d 1164, 1168 (2010). If not, the plaintiff has no First Amendment cause of action based upon his or her employer's reaction to the speech. Connick, 461 U.S. at 146.

(d) If so, does the court conclude that the employer has shown adequate justification for the action taken because its interest in the effective and efficient fulfillment of its responsibilities to the public, including promoting efficiency and integrity in the discharge of official duties and in maintaining proper discipline in public service, outweighed the employee's First Amendment right, considering factors such as how substantially the speech involved matters of public concern; the manner, time, and place where the speech occurred; and the context in which it arose, giving a wide degree of deference to the employer's judgment? Id. at 150-54. If the court so concludes, then the employer's action did not offend the First Amendment. Id. at 154.

(e) If the court cannot so conclude, has the employer shown by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have taken the same adverse employment action even in the absence of the protected speech? Mt. Healthy City School Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 286 (1977).


Did the District Court Err in Holding that Plaintiff's Statements Were Not Protected Because He Spoke as a Public Employee?

Plaintiff alleged that the Defendants violated his rights of freedom of speech. When he made the statements at issue, Plaintiff was a public employee. The district court characterized the issue as whether he "spoke as Public Employee or Private Citizen," and concluded that his speech was not protected because he spoke as a public employee.

"When a citizen enters government service, the citizen by necessity must accept certain limitations on his or her freedom." Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 418 (2006). "[T]he State has interests as an employer in regulating the speech of its employees that differ significantly from those it possesses in connection with regulation of the speech of the citizenry in general." Pickering v. Bd. of Ed. of Township High School Dist. 205, Will County, Illinois, 391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968). "A government entity has broader discretion to restrict speech when it acts in its role as ...

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