A U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down last week could aid public hospitals and other public employers in dealing with employees who claim they were fired because their right to free speech was violated.
The high court ruled 7-2 to overturn a decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. The appeals court had said 128-bed McDonough District Hospital in Macomb, Ill., was liable when it fired obstetric nurse Cheryl Churchill, who was complaining about her job evaluation and hospital managers. The case, known as Walters vs. Churchill, was filed in 1987 in U.S. District Court in Peoria, Ill.
Ms. Churchill was accused of making insubordinate comments to fellow employees about her job evaluation, her managers and the hospital's cross-training policies. Ms. Churchill also had said she would discourage other employees from participating in those policies.
Ms. Churchill charged that the hospital was liable for "retaliatory discharge" under the First Amendment and her complaints about the cross-training policies were a matter of public concern.
But the hospital said it fired her for insubordination and not because of her opinions about cross-training. "The hospital didn't know she was complaining about cross-training nursing policies until after the lawsuit was filed," said Lawrence Manson, a Chicago attorney who represented the hospital.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the court's majority, said the hospital shouldn't be held liable, in part because it didn't realize Ms. Churchill was making comments about the cross-training program. She also said that government employers have a legitimate interest in achieving their goals as effectively and efficiently as possible.
"This ruling prevents public employers from facing strict liability" for violating the first amendment when they terminate employees for other reasons, such as insubordinate, unprotected speech, Mr. Manson said.