There’s always going to be some conflicts at work. And when an employee criticizes their supervisor, things can get sticky.
One employee didn’t like how their supervisor did their job. When the employee complained, they were reprimanded and later fired. The worker tried to claim their free speech rights had been violated, but a court disagreed.
Here’s a breakdown of the case.
Beth Sweet worked for the city of Bargersville, Indiana under the clerk-treasurer. Sweet’s job was to collect utility bills and set up payment plans for customers.
A problem arose when a client failed to pay their bills. Sweet shut off his utilities, but Sweet’s supervisor reversed her decision and restored the client’s utilities. Apparently, the client was a business partner and friend to the supervisor, and Sweet suspected that affected the decision.
Sweet confronted her supervisor about this, believing all customers should be treated the same. After this incident, Sweet was no longer in charge of disconnecting utilities. A few months later, after making a different mistake that cost the city $1,000, Sweet was let go.
Sweet sued, believing she was fired for the initial confrontation with her supervisor. Sweet said her criticism was protected under the First Amendment, and her firing was a violation of her free speech rights.
Discipline still permitted
However, a court ruled in favor of the city. It said the First Amendment protects “a public employee’s right to speak as a citizen addressing matters of public concern.” In the court’s opinion, Sweet’s statements didn’t fall under this definition.
The court also noted that the First Amendment doesn’t prohibit discipline for certain criticisms — so even if Sweet’s comments were protected under free speech rights, she wasn’t protected from discipline.
Not to mention, her ultimate firing was for a different mistake, which took place months after the incident in question. The court thought too much time had passed to make a connection between the two events.
This case acts as a reminder for employers to be mindful of timing when making termination decisions, and to always document the reasons for the decision.