9th Circuit Court: Fired Maricopa County Employee Not Entitled to $300K Award
The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Maricopa County did not violate a former employee's First Amendment rights by firing her after she commented to a newspaper.
Maria Brandon, a former civil litigator, had worked for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for 25 years when she was fired in 2011.
Not only did she lose the case, barring appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Thursday ruling also means she won't get the more than $300,000 she was awarded after a seven-day trial in 2014.
Neither Brandon nor her attorney, Larry Cohen, returned a message on Friday.
The lawsuit was a leftover from the long feud between county leaders on one side and former politicians Joe Arpaio and Andy Thomas on the other.
Thomas, the former Maricopa County Attorney, and Arpaio, who was denied a seventh term as Maricopa County Sheriff in November, fought for years with the county's five-member Board of Supervisors, county manager, and other county employees.
The Republican sheriff and county attorney partnered in what a state Supreme Court panel likened to an "unholy collaboration" that engaged in unethical behavior while accusing county leaders of corruption.
They targeted supervisors, judges, lawyers, and county employees with criminal investigations that were either wholly bogus or seriously compromised because of their ethical breaches. The county ultimately had to shell out millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements because of their actions, and Thomas was disbarred.
Brandon's case initially brought a rare court victory, albeit an indirect one, to Thomas and Arpaio's side.
After voters elected Bill Montgomery county attorney in 2010, he began trying to straighten out the mess he had inherited. Workers in the office who were perceived to be followers of Arpaio and Thomas were allegedly ostracized.
One longtime deputy county attorney compared the atmosphere in the office "to the post-Civil War, Reconstruction period when there were lynchings."
Brandon, in 2010, was working on claims filed by demonstrators who had been arrested by Arpaio's deputies in 2008.
Brandon figured she could settle the case by offering $7,500 to each of the seven anti-Arpaio protesters who had sued. Rocky Armfield, former county risk manager, told her the county wanted to pay each protester up to $100,000. They later received a total of $475,000 in settlements.
Arizona Republic reporter Craig Harris called her at the office in July 2010, asking about leaked documents he had obtained that revealed she wasn't happy about the deal with protesters.
"I don't know why they did what they did, and I'm sure they have their reasons," Brandon told Harris, referring to her bosses.
Brandon testified that soon after she spoke to Harris, the county took away most of the cases she had been working on. Two other employees who had worked on Arpaio lawsuits had their pay and workload reduced too, she alleged.
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The change to her work status was retaliation against her for her comments in the article, Brandon charged.
A few months later, in June 2011, county leaders trumped up allegations against her and fired her, according to her complaint.
A federal jury sided with Brandon following seven days of testimony by employees and top county officials, including Montgomery.
The jury granted Brandon a nominal award of $1 for the alleged First Amendment violation, and $638,147.94 for interfering with her employment contract. The trial judge later reduced the award to $302,175.28.
The county appealed the case, resulting in Thursday's ruling.
The 3-0 ruling by the Ninth Circuit panel states that the trial court didn't take the entire circumstance into account.
Brandon may not have violated any county policy by talking to the newspaper, the panel ruled, but she wronged her client, the county, in doing so.
Her comment "reflected negatively" on the county, the ruling states. The published statement "implies the client was acting with professional advice when paying the settlement. Brandon's statement that they must 'have their reasons' cements the implication that the client was acting unprofessionally."
Taken together, her comments "fell under the broad set of official duties she owed Maricopa County as its attorney, and so was not constitutionally protected citizen speech."
The county was acting in its own interest by taking away cases from Brandon, and "no reasonable jury" could decide otherwise, the ruling states.
With the county in its rights to take away her workload in light of the comment she made to the newspaper, the First Amendment retaliation claim was also voided.
Now, the county has achieved what may be its final victory from the Arpaio-Thomas saga.
And the case teaches county employees a valuable lesson in governmental opacity:
When a reporter calls, keep your mouth shut.