No Constitutional Protection For Union Speech Of Corrections Officers

Andrea Cabral was appointed Sheriff of Suffolk County by the governor of Massachusetts in 2002. Four months later, she formally recognized the newly-formed Jail Officers and Employees Association of Suffolk County as the designated collective bargaining agent for Suffolk County’s corrections employees.

The Association and Cabral quickly became embroiled in disputes over contract provisions. Some of the disputes spilled into lawsuits – on one occasion, the Association filed a lawsuit against Cabral for failing to remit payments of $2.6 million on behalf of Association members to a retirement fund. In January 2004, Association members who were called to duty during the Iraq war were notified that they would not receive any credit for vacation and sick time accrued during their military service. The Association responded by organizing informational pickets directed at Cabral.

After a meeting with Cabral failed to ease tensions, the Association filed four charges of prohibited practices with the State Labor Relations Commission. The Association then mailed letters to members of the State Legislature and the governor protesting Cabral’s alleged unwillingness to fund employee pensions. Days later, the Association authorized direct mailings to 10,000 Suffolk County voters and elected officials requesting support and assistance in the contract negotiations. One letter, with the heading “What A Mess! Promises Not Kept,” accused Cabral of “taking” employee pension money, while awarding undeserved pay increases to her friends and campaign supporters.

Cabral summoned the president and vice-president of the Association to her office. For three hours, Cabral berated the two men, accusing them of libel and slander. She also told them that she had grounds to fire them and have their personal assets seized.

Cabral won election to a six-year term as Sheriff in November 2004. Five months later, Cabral informed the president and vice-president that she was rescinding their commissions as deputy sheriffs. The officers sued, contending among other things that Cabral had retaliated against them because of their exercise of their free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

A federal court dismissed the free-speech claims of the officers without allowing the matter to go to trial. To begin with, the Court was unconvinced that the speech engaged in by the Association was about a matter of public concern. In the Court’s eyes, “by disparaging the Sheriff’s management style, the plaintiffs sought to advance the union’s bargaining position for their benefit and the benefit of other union members. Although the public would likely be concerned with revelations of discord and dysfunction in the Sheriff’s Office, the import of plaintiffs’ message was diminished by their preoccupation with personal disagreements and internal disputes over the workings of the Department. Plaintiffs’ speech did not purport to alert the public to a significant safety threat; they complained instead of pay raises given by the Sheriff to her friends and the creation of a fiscal mess in the Department.”

Even assuming that the speech dealt with matters of public concern, the Court still found that it would be unprotected by the First Amendment. The Court held that “public employees often occupy trusted positions in society. When they speak out, they can express views that contravene governmental policies or impair the proper performance of governmental functions. The need for discipline is even more acute in the ranks of a law enforcement agency. The Sheriff’s interest in maintaining order and discipline among her officers outweighed any legitimate interests of the plaintiffs in promoting the union’s bargaining position.”

Bergeron v. Cabral, 2008 WL 391191 (D.Mass. 2008).

This article appears in the April 2008 issue