A 9th Circuit decision vacated a $1 million awarded by a jury to a former deputy Maricopa County attorney. On appeal, the court found that a reasonable jury could not conclude that County risk management officials interfered with the plaintiff’s employment contract, and that her comments to a newspaper regarding an ongoing case were not protected by the First Amendment. The trial court verdicts were reversed and remanded, with an order to enter judgment for the defendants.
Maria Brandon worked as a civil litigation attorney for Maricopa County for many years. She was interviewed by a reporter at the Arizona Republic regarding a case that alleged brutality by the sheriff’s department towards protesters. The newspaper article suggested that the county made an overly generous settlement offer to avoid embarrassing certain county officials who may have been required to answer questions in depositions. Brandon stated that “I don’t know why they did what they did, and I’m sure they have their reasons.”
After these comments were published, county risk management officials asked that she not be assigned any more cases in which the county was a party and risk management was involved. She was eventyally terminated from employment with the county.
Brandon filed suit in U.S. District Court, and a jury awarded her $1 million for retaliation by the county in violation of her First Amendment rights, and a $638,000 award for her claim for tortious interference with an employment contact.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit unanimously reversed both verdicts. The court found that the County’s conduct did not violate applicable law.
The 9th Circuit disagreed with the District Court’s determination that the county risk management officials were not clients of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in this case. Because they were making a request to their counsel as a client, they had a legally protected interest, and used proper means to protect it by requesting that Brandon be removed from certain types of cases.
The court also reversed the First Amendment claim, analyzing Brandon’s speech under the three-part test used in Dahlia v. Rodriguez, 735 F.3d 1060, (9th Cir. 2013). The court found that Brandon was speaking in her professional capacity as a lawyer representing the county, that her statement did not allege any corruption or misconduct, and that the statement did not expressly violate any policy of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. Because Brandon was speaking as part of her professional duties, her First Amendment retaliation claim was also reversed.
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