CYNTHIA WATERS, et al. v. CHERYL R. CHURCHILL, et al.
Supreme Court Cases
511 U.S. 661 (1994)
Legal Principle at Issue
Whether a public employee may be fired for her speech even though one version of what she said indicates that her speech was of public concern.
Vacated and remanded. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.
A nurse in the obstetrics unit at a public hospital was fired after she spoke with a nurse who was being recruited to join the unit. According to some witnesses, the nurse spoke inappropriately and negatively about the unit and her supervisor. According to the nurse and other witnesses, she spoke primarily about whether some policies being followed on the unit were diminishing the quality of nursing care. The nurse's supervisors learned of the discussion and fired the nurse after a brief investigation. The nurse sued, complaining that her termination violated the rule set forth by the Court inConnick v. Myers — that a public employee's speech is protected if it involves a matter of public concern and is not disruptive of the employment setting. The district court held that the nurse's speech was not of public concern and dismissed her case. The court of appeals reversed, holding that the speech (if it was as described by the terminated nurse) was of public concern. The court of appeals noted that inquiry must turn on what the speech actually was, and not on what the hospital concluded had been said.
In Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138 (1983), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a public employee's speech is protected if it involves a matter of public concern and is not disruptive of the employment setting. The Court, however, had never before been asked to decide a case in which the public employer and employee disagreed about what had been said.
Importance of Case
The Court had not before addressed how a public employer should handle a situation in which the content of an employee's speech is disputed. While the members of the Court disagreed concerning which test should apply, it appears that all of the tests suggested, including the test adopted, are likely to spawn further litigation concerning the reasonableness of the employer's investigation, whether the employer's reliance on the employee's speech was a pretextual reason for termination, and whether any version of the disputed speech was disruptive.
In several opinions, a fractured Court reversed the appellate court's decision. The Court found that the nurse's speech was not of public concern and that, even if it was, it was disruptive. The Court also held that an employer's resolution of a factual dispute about an employee's speech is protected if the employer conducts a reasonable good-faith investigation. The plurality concluded that this reasonableness standard offers sufficient protection for both the employer and the employee.
Advocated for Respondent
- John H. Bisbee View all cases
Advocated for Petitioner
- Lawrence A. Mason View all cases