Notes on Ceballos v Garcetti
Richard Ceballos had been employed since 1989 as a deputy district attorney for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which at the time was headed by Gil Garcetti. After the defense attorney in a pending criminal case contacted Ceballos about his motion to challenge a critical search warrant based on inaccuracies in the supporting affidavit, Ceballos conducted his own investigation and determined that the affidavit contained serious misrepresentations. Ceballos contacted the deputy sheriff who had sworn out the affidavit, but was not satisfied by his explanations. Ceballos then communicated his findings to his supervisors and submitted a memorandum in which he recommended dismissal of the case. A meeting was subsequently held to discuss the affidavit with his superiors and officials from the sheriff's department, which Ceballos claimed became heated and accusatory of his role in handling the case. Despite Ceballos’ concerns, his supervisor decided to proceed with the prosecution. The criminal trial court held a hearing on the motion, during which Ceballos was called by the defense to recount his observations about the affidavit. The trial court nevertheless denied the motion and upheld the warrant. Ceballos claimed that he was subsequently subjected to a series of retaliatory employment actions. These included reassignment to a different position, transfer to another courthouse, and denial of a promotion. He initiated an employment grievance, which was denied based on a finding that he had not suffered any retaliation. District Court proceedings
Ceballos then brought a section 1983 claim in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, asserting that his supervisors violated the First Amendment by retaliating against him for his memo. His supervisors claimed that there was no retaliation, that the changes in his job were instead dictated by legitimate staffing concerns, and that regardless, Ceballos’ memo was not constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment. The District Court granted their motion for summary judgment, concluding that because Ceballos wrote his memo pursuant to the duties of his employment, he was not entitled to First Amendment protection for the memo’s contents. In the alternative, it ruled that even if he had a protected speech right in this context, the right was not clearly established and so qualified immunity applied to his supervisors' actions. Court of Appeals decision
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that his criticism of the warrant in the memo constituted protected speech under the First Amendment. The court applied the analysis set forth in Supreme Court precedent that looks to whether the expression at issue was made by the speaker "as a citizen upon matters of public concern.". Because his memo dealt with what he thought to be governmental misconduct, the court believed its subject was "inherently a matter of public concern." However, the court did not evaluate whether it was made in Ceballos' capacity as a citizen, due to Ninth Circuit precedent ruling that the First Amendment applied to statements made pursuant to a duty of employment. Having concluded that Ceballos’ memo satisfied the public-concern requirement, the Court of Appeals proceeded to balance Ceballos’ interest in his speech against his supervisors’ interest in responding to it. The court struck the balance in Ceballos’ favor, noting that his supervisors had "failed even to suggest disruption or inefficiency in the workings of the District Attorney’s Office" as a result of the memo. The court further concluded that Ceballos’ First Amendment rights were clearly established and that petitioners’ actions were not objectively reasonable. Judge Diarmuid Fionntain O'Scannlain specially concurred. Though agreeing that the panel’s decision was compelled by Circuit precedent, he nevertheless concluded Circuit...
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