Glen Naghtin was a firefighter for the Montague, Michigan Fire Department. Two brothers, Donald and Dennis Roesler, also worked for the Department. Donald was a unit captain and Dennis was the Fire Chief.
In 2009, the Fire District’s Board authorized the construction of a new fire station. After construction had commenced, Donald Roesler began expressing concerns about the structure, including numerous fire-code violations and deviations from the station’s planned specifications. When Donald’s concerns remained unanswered, he requested a leave of absence from the Department until the tensions surrounding his objections subsided.
Dennis Roesler denied Donald’s request and subsequently demoted Donald from his position as Captain. Donald re-submitted his leave request, which was ultimately approved for a period of six months. As Donald’s six-month leave was expiring, with nothing having been done regarding the new fire station, Donald requested an extended leave. This leave was also granted. When Donald’s extended leave was about to expire and still nothing had been done regarding the new fire station, it became clear that Donald needed to either return or resign.
At this time, Naghtin and several other firefighters decided to take action. Naghtin created a petition, which he circulated to various members of the Department. Naghtin intentionally chose not to circulate the petition to any member of the Roesler family. The petition, which called for Donald’s reinstatement as Captain of the Department, garnered thirteen signatures from district firefighters. The petition explained:
“Don has an abundance of knowledge and experience, both from the Montague Fire District and the United States Navy. Don has received leadership training from the military and specialized training through the Fire District that are invaluable assets that can’t be provided by another member of the Fire Department. A person with Don’s level of knowledge, training and experience is a rare commodity. For the long term good of the Fire District, Fire Department, and its tax payers, we feel that any and all things possible should be done to reinstate Donald Roesler II to the position of Captain as soon as possible.”
Naghtin sent the signed petition to Chief Roesler and the members of the Board, which then held a special Personnel Committee meeting on November 29, 2011 to discuss a proper course of action. In response, the Board accepted Chief Roesler’s recommendation that Naghtin be fired. Naghtin then brought a First Amendment free speech lawsuit against the District.
A federal appeals court dismissed Naghtin’s lawsuit. The key issue, the Court noted, was whether Naghtin’s petition touched upon a matter of public concern. The Court observed that “federal courts have long been instructed not to constitutionalize the employee grievance. Our case law has consistently held that mere allegations of managerial incompetence do not amount to constitutionally protected speech.
“This is not to say that managerial incompetence can never rise to a level where exposing it becomes a protected First Amendment activity. On the contrary, where exposing managerial incompetence includes allegations that public monies are being spent unwisely and that a government program is being run so inefficiently that a public agency or official is corrupt, we have found that speech to be a matter of public interest meriting constitutional protection.
“Even though Naghtin’s petition refers to the long term good of the Fire District, Fire Department, and its tax payers, the thrust of his petition involves a request to reinstate Donald Roesler, whose removal from his post as Captain of the Department reeks of precisely the same internal office politics that we have consistently found to be outside the scope of First Amendment protection. The very argument that Naghtin raises on appeal – that morale is a matter of public concern – is one that we found inadequate. Nor do Naghtin’s allegations of an improper demotion suggest that corruption is afoot in Montague. The mere fact that Donald Roesler was dismissed as a result of an intra-family dispute that had disrupted the formerly smooth operation of the fire deparment, although regrettable, can hardly be called a matter of such public importance that Naghtin’s petition for Donald’s reinstatement merits First Amendment protection.”
Though the Court dismissed Naghtin’s case, it noted that “Naghtin’s plight is a sympathetic one. However, he is nonetheless not entitled to relief from this court for the same primary reason identified by the trial court: his petition did not address a matter of public concern.”
Naghtin v. Montague Fire District Board, 2016 WL 7494866 (6th Cir. 2016).