Judge’s Retaliation Claims Dismissed For Failure To Show Violation Of Constitutional Right

paragraph_attorney_judge_process-682x1024Working in a courthouse may seem like an environment where the rule of law reigns supreme, but even within its hallowed halls, employees can encounter workplace issues and retaliation. In the following case, a Louisiana State Judge became embroiled in a dispute involving a law clerk’s alleged illegal and unethical behavior. As a result of this disagreement and the actions taken by her colleagues, the Judge claimed she suffered unfair treatment, false accusations, and the violation of her constitutional rights. A lawsuit was filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging retaliation for exercising her First Amendment right to freedom of speech. However, the courts were tasked with determining whether her claims truly amounted to violating her constitutional rights or merely involving unfriendly conduct.

Sharon Ingram Marchman was a Louisiana State Judge in Louisiana’s Fourth Judicial Court. She claimed a law clerk had been involved in illegal and unethical behavior. Marchman claimed that due to a disagreement among judges and staff at the Fourth Judicial Court on how to deal with the law clerk, she was treated unfairly by the other employees and falsely accused of disclosing confidential information. Marchman claimed this culminated with her resigning as chair of the personnel committee. 

Marchman filed a lawsuit against the law clerk, some of the other judges, and various other individuals. Marchman claimed they violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and retaliated against her for exercising her First Amendment right to free speech. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). The trial court agreed Marchman had not stated a claim as she did not adequately allege any violation of her constitutional rights and dismissed her case. The trial court explained at most, Marchman’s allegations involved unfriendly or unprofessional conduct but not a violation of her constitutional rights. Marchman appealed. 

To prevail on a claim under Section 1983, Marchman was required to show a constitutional right was violated. She claimed her First Amendment right to freedom of speech was violated. However, she did not show an adverse action, which is required for a public employee to prevail in a claim of a violation of the First Amendment. An adverse employment action must be objectively adverse. Criticisms from others in the workplace are not sufficient. 

Here, Marchman did not allege she received any formal sanction or reprimand for exercising her rights under the First Amendment. Although Marchman resigned from her position as chair of the personnel committee, there was no evidence this resignation was a constructive demotion. 

While the appellate court agreed with the trial court that many of Marchman’s alleged actions from the other judges after she spoke out on her views of how to deal with the law clerk involved in illegal or unethical behavior constituted rude or unprofessional conduct, it did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation. While the court acknowledged it requires courage to speak out about issues at work, it explained not every consequence that results from speaking out constitutes a constitutional violation. Therefore, the appellate court agreed with the trial court’s dismissal of Marchman’s claim she was retaliated against for exercising her First Amendment right to freedom of speech. 

No matter your workplace location – whether an office, factory, or courthouse like Marchman – a good lawyer can advise you on the elements required to succeed in a workplace retaliation lawsuit. As Marchman learned here, allegations that only involve rude or unprofessional conduct, with no evidence of a related adverse employment outcome, will not be sufficient to succeed on your claims.

Additional Sources: Sharon Ingram Marchman v. Brian E. Crawford; Lawrence W. Pettiette, Jr., James D. Caldwell, Carl V. Sharp, Frederic C. Ammon, J. Wilson Rambo, Benjamin Jones; and Allyson Campbell 

Article Written By Berniard Law Firm

Additional Berniard Law Firm Article on Section 1983 Claims In The Workplace:  Courts Dismisses Claims Brought By Employee Who Voiced Criticisms In “Reply All” Email 

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