December 20, 2014

Tenth Circuit: First Amendment Retaliation Claims Fail when Additional Grounds Exist for Termination

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Trant v. State of Oklahoma on Wednesday, May 28, 2014.

Dr. Collie Trant became Oklahoma’s Chief Medical Examiner during a time when the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner was recovering from several scandals. Trant was soon terminated by the Board of Medicolegal Investigations. He filed suit in Oklahoma state court, alleging First Amendment retaliation claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, breach of implied contract, and violation of the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act. The case was voluntarily removed to federal court. The district court granted summary judgment for defendants on the First Amendment retaliation claim, dismissed the breach of implied contract claim for failure to state a claim under Oklahoma law, and dismissed the Open Meetings Act claim for lack of standing. Trant then appealed to the Tenth Circuit.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the summary judgment on the First Amendment retaliation claims. Trant asserted that he was terminated for statements made by him and his attorney threatening to reveal information to authorities regarding the grand jury investigation of the prior scandals. The Tenth Circuit applied the Garcetti/Pickering analysis and concluded that, because the Board had several legitimate reasons for terminating him and would have terminated him regardless of whether the protected statements were made, Trant did not meet his burden and summary judgment for the Board was appropriate.

Trant had also alleged that three other people took retaliatory actions against him because of his protected speech. However, the Tenth Circuit analyzed each individual and determined that no impropriety occurred.

Next, the Tenth Circuit evaluated Trant’s claims regarding the violation of the Open Meetings Act. He  sought a declaratory judgment that his termination was invalid because of the Board’s failure to comply with the Open Meetings Act. On this point, the Tenth Circuit reversed the dismissal and remanded the case to the district court to determine whether Oklahoma waived its immunity from liability.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the First Amendment retaliation claims, affirmed dismissal of the breach of implied contract claims, and reversed and remanded the dismissal of the Open Meetings Act claims.

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