James Dumas is a firefighter at St. Tammany Parish Fire District No. 3 in Louisiana, and is the vice-president of the firefighters’ union. In May 2016, the Union submitted a letter to the District’s Civil Service Board expressing a “vote of no confidence” in Fire Chief Patrick Sicard. The letter alleged that Sicard violated several provisions of civil service law, including failing to perform the duties of his position by understaffing ambulance operations and fire protection. The letter further complained of Sicard’s discourteous and offensive behavior, which included allegedly posting a picture of himself wearing a “Hitler mustache” while performing the “Heil Hitler salute,” performing the salute in person, using racial slurs, and using sexually explicit innuendos to disparage the Union.
The Board opened an investigation into Sicard’s behavior and scheduled a disciplinary hearing for May 26, 2016. Between March 24, 2016 and May 12, 2016, Dumas had Facebook conversations with Rick Franzo, the president of a local community group called Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, and Cindy Rester, a member of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany. Dumas expressed his concern about Sicard’s alleged racism and incompetence as Fire Chief to Franzo and invited both Franzo and Rester to Sicard’s public disciplinary hearing.
In June 2016, the Board issued Sicard a one-day suspension and a mandate to attend sensitivity training. A month later, the Department began an investigation into Dumas’s conduct, alleging that Dumas’s communication with Franzo and Rester violated Department policies. Sicard eventually sustained the charge and suspended Dumas for five days.
Dumas sued, contending his actions were shielded by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees. When the District filed a motion to dismiss Dumas’s complaint, a federal court judge was required to decide what protection, if any, should be given to Dumas’s actions.
The Court largely allowed Dumas’s lawsuit to continue. The key issue for the Court was whether Dumas’s statements were about a matter of public concern. The Court began with the proposition that “whether an employee’s speech addresses a matter of public concern must be determined by the content, form, and context of a given statement. It is well-established that speech relating to official misconduct or racial discrimination almost always involves a matter of public concern. Moreover, speech that potentially affects public safety relates to the public concern.
“Dumas has sufficiently alleged that the content of the May 2016 Union letter was on a matter of public concern. Much of the May 2016 Union letter addresses an employment grievance, e.g., racial slurs and inappropriate gestures by a superior. However, Dumas’s complaint also alleges that Sicard mismanaged the staffing of ambulance operations and fire protections. Accordingly, the May 2016 Union letter contains ‘mixed speech,’ i.e., speech involving matters of public concern as well as employees’ private, personal interests. Further, even though the allegation of understaffing is one of several statements in the Union letter, even a mere scintilla of speech regarding a matter of public concern is sufficient to treat the entire communication as mixed speech.
“The public, naturally, cares deeply about the ability of its Fire Department to respond quickly and effectively to a fire. If staffing shortages potentially threaten the ability of the Fire Department to perform its duties, people in the community want to receive such information. Although scarce, Dumas’s reference to the understaffing of ambulance operations and fire protections is sufficient at this stage of the proceedings to demonstrate that the content of Dumas’s speech addressed a matter of public concern.
“However, the Court finds that the context of Dumas’s May 2016 Union letter is appropriately characterized as unprotected private speech rather than public speech. Speech is made in the context of a public concern if made against a backdrop of widespread debate in the community rather than solely in furtherance of a personal employer-employee dispute. As vice-president of the Union, Dumas aired grievances about Sicard’s behavior to the Civil Service Board which is capable of reprimanding Sicard, which in fact it did. Because Dumas’s grievance was internal and only to Sicard’s supervisory authority, this suggests that the speech was private in context, rather than public.”
Nonetheless, the Court also found that Dumas’s communication with Franzo and Rester were protected speech. The Court noted that “informing persons outside of the normal chain of command of an employment grievance supports the contention that the speech was public. Here, Dumas expressed his concern with Sicard’s actions and inactions to members of the public who were also members of an organization which seeks to represent the people of St. Tammany Parish. Accordingly, this factor weighs in favor of finding that Dumas’s speech was on a matter of public concern and entitled to protection.”
Dumas v. St. Tammany Parish Fire District No. 3, 2017 WL 1969641 (E.D. La. 2017).