Freedom Of Association Does Not Cover Friends

David Lord was a corrections officer for Erie County, Pennsylvania. In 2005, Lord met Teo Underhill and the two moved into an apartment together. On January 1, 2006, while the two were sharing an apartment, Underhill was arrested. He was later released into Lord’s custody pending trial.

Following a jury trial, Underhill was found guilty of misdemeanor simple assault and disorderly conduct. He was sentenced to 48 hours in the Erie County Prison and 21 months of probation. After Underhill served his term of incarceration, but while he was still on probation, he and Lord communicated by telephone and in person. Lord was aware that Underhill was on probation, and he spoke with two supervisors at the Prison concerning his relationship with Underhill. Lord ignored the advice of both supervisors that he avoid Underhill.

Lord was eventually fired for violating the County’s “no-fraternization” rule. He filed a federal court lawsuit, claiming the County’s rule deprived him of his freedom of association protected by the First Amendment. The Court dismissed Lord’s lawsuit, finding that the principles of free association did not extend to mere friendships, no matter how close:

“Simply stated, the record here establishes that Lord and Underhill were friends. At one time, prior to Underhill’s arrest and incarceration, they were also roommates, and Underhill was released into Lord’s custody during the pendency of his criminal charges. However, the two men were not living together at the time of the events which gave rise to Lord’s termination. Rather, during the relevant time-frame (i.e., after Underhill was released from prison), Lord and Underhill were simply friends who communicated and socialized with each other. Although it is not always clear which types of relationships will be considered sufficiently intimate or private as to receive constitutional protection, those that involve marriage, the begetting and bearing of children, child rearing and education, and cohabitation with relatives are within the umbrella of protected intimate associations. Only relationships ‘distinguished by such attributes as relative smallness, a high degree of selectivity in decisions to begin and maintain the affiliation, and seclusion from others in critical aspects of the relationship are likely to implicate protection.

“Based on these principles, courts have routinely determined that associations based on friendship, even close ones, do not satisfy the type of intimacy warranting constitutional protection. The undisputed facts of record show that Lord has failed to establish the violation of any constitutionally protected interest by virtue of his firing. Because Lord has failed to produce evidence from which a trier of fact could conclude that his constitutional rights were violated, his claim fails as a matter of law.”

Lord v. Erie County, 2011 WL 4056081 (W.D. Pa. 2011).

This article appears in the December 2011 issue.