City did not violate employee’s First Amendment rights by prohibiting him from running for political office says U.S. 5th Circuit.

Phillips v. City of Dallas, No. 14-10379 (5th Circ. March 27, 2015).

This is a First Amendment employment case where a City employee was terminated after he sought public office for a county position. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit pursuant to  Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c)[Judgment on the Pleadings.]

Micah Phillips (“Phillips”) was a City fire dispatcher when, in December 2011, he announced his candidacy for the Dallas County Commissioners Court.  The City Charter and ethics ordinance at the time prohibited employees from running for an elected office within any County which overlapped the City or with which the City had any contractual relationships. Phillips was terminated pursuant to City policy. He sued alleging the Charter and ordinances violated his First Amendment rights and were facially invalid and invalid as applied. The City filed a motion to dismiss which the trial court granted and he appealed.

The Fifth Circuit first went through a history of cases which restricted employees’ First Amendment rights for various reasons. It then held, contrary to the City’s assertion, that running for office was not only protected by the First Amendment, but touched on matters of public concern by its very nature. However, the court went on to say the City has legitimate interests in restricting conflicts caused by candidacies which outweighs the general right to run. The court rejected Phillips’ argument the City must articulate why his particular candidacy posed a problem and determined the City could rely upon more generalized and universal grounds. Phillips still retained his ability to participate in fundraising and associate with the Democratic Party, but was merely restricted from running for office. The court seemed to distinguish Phillips’ supporting case law by noting the City’s interests in this case center on conflicts due to overlapping jurisdictions, conflicts based on contracts, and are directed to partisan activity only. The court listed several cases which restricted employee political activity in ways “more far-reaching than the City’s here.”  In other words, the City was entirely within its power to make such restrictions and properly tailored the ordinances and Charter to be constitutional. As a result, the trial court properly dismissed Phillips’ claims.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Chief Judge STEWART,  SOUTHWICK, and COSTA.  Opinion by Chief Justice Stewart. The attorney listed for Phillips is Christopher D. Kratovil.  The attorney listed for the City is Nicholas Dane Palmer.