Lloyd Dobler's View of Job Responsibilities Can't Defeat Garcetti Defense

December 9, 2015

By: Howard M. Miller

In the classic 1980's comedy "Say Anything," the iconic high school senior Lloyd Dobler articulates his career goals as follows: "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career.  I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.  You know, as a career, I don't want to do that." A cursory Google search reveals that this 25 year old quote still resonates with much affection.  But what may be deemed a charming lack of ambition from a teenaged movie character can be the death knell of a First Amendment case brought by a plaintiff who turns this quote into a veritable workplace mantra. Take for example the recent case of Alves v. Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.  In Alves, five psychologists of the Georgia State University Counseling Center submitted a written memorandum to the Counseling Center's director and the director's supervisor, criticizing the director's leadership and management, which they claimed "created an unstable work environment" and prevented the staff from being effective in their work.  The memorandum set forth five areas of concern, including deficiencies in management, witness tampering, and selective treatment of staff based on race. A short time later, the director implemented a reduction in force affecting all the staff psychologists, all but one of whom were signatories to the memorandum, and outsourced their services at allegedly lower costs.  The five psychologists who had signed the memorandum filed a First Amendment retaliation suit, claiming that they were fired for the "speech" contained in the memorandum, which they contended was made by them as ordinary citizens on matters of public concern. The defendants moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, arguing that under the Supreme Court's decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, the memorandum was written about matters of only personal interest pursuant to the plaintiffs' official duties as employees, rather than about matters of public concern.  The lower court agreed with the defendants and dismissed the complaint, which resulted in an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, the five psychologists employed a Dobleresque view of their job responsibilities, arguing that raising ethical issues and protesting alleged supervisory incompetence were simply not within the ordinary ambit of their job duties.  In other words, according to the plaintiffs, their job was only to provide counseling services to students -- not to "process" or "repair" anything within the broader universe of their workplace.  The Eleventh Circuit disagreed and affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiffs' complaint.  The Court found that the plaintiffs' protests were in furtherance of their ability to perform their job responsibilities with the goal of ending perceived mismanagement.  The Court determined that these were matters of personal interest rather than public concern, and therefore, were not protected by the First Amendment. The long and short of Alves and the cases that follow similar reasoning is that while a public employee may say anything in a lawsuit to try to limit their true job responsibilities, lack of ambition, whether real or feigned, is rewarded with applause only in the movies.