The recent case of Hudson v City of Highland Park, ___ F3d ___ (CA 6, 2019) demonstrates the low bar courts require to press forward with a legal claim. Hudson involved a firefighter who was disliked by his colleagues because of his outspoken critiques of rampant immorality in the workplace – including use of pornography in communal areas and the carrying on of extramarital affairs at the station. Hudson was employed with Defendant City for 13 years but was terminated after he was found to have “double‑dipped” when reporting his time. Hudson alleged that he was retaliated against for his protected First Amendment speech, that his due process rights were violated, and that he was discriminated against in violation of Title VII. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld dismissal of the due process and Title VII claims but remanded the case to the trial court to move forward with Hudson’s First Amendment retaliation claim.
The court opined that to proceed with a First Amendment retaliation claim, Hudson had to plead (1) that he engaged in protected speech, (2) that he suffered an adverse employment action, and (3) that the fire department fired him because of his speech. Without providing any substantive analysis, the court concluded Hudson’s speech was protected. Additionally, because Hudson was terminated, he was undoubtedly subjected to an adverse employment action. The “close” question for the court was whether Hudson sufficiently pled he was terminated because of his speech. The court ruled that Hudson had sufficiently pled his case by alleging that Hudson’s supervisor told another firefighter that the supervisor was tired of Hudson’s complaints, and by alleging that the supervisor terminated Hudson for the “double‑dipping issue” even though the supervisor knew of another firefighter who had done the same thing.
Hudson is a good example of how easy it can be to prosecute a claim in court. The ultimate result of the case is likely to have little impact on the day‑to‑day operations of government employers, including school districts. Yet, it serves as a good reminder to document complaints and any employer responses/actions, as documentation is often the best way to prevent costly litigation.
The opinion may be accessed here.