From The Municipal Minute, authored by Julie Tappendorf of Ancel Glink.
After Kevin Smith became Mayor of Anderson, Indiana, he replaced many members of the City staff with his political supporters or others he deemed trustworthy. 11 of the fired workers filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Mayor and the City of Anderson claiming that the discharges violated the First Amendment. The district court held that the Mayor had qualified immunity with respect to 9 of the 11 claims, and allowed the other two claims to continue. Both the City and Mayor appealed to the 7th Circuit.
The 7th Circuit limited its appeal to determining whether the district court was correct in denying the Mayor qualified immunity with respect to the two remaining plaintiffs. These two plaintiffs included Allman, the former office manager for the utility department and Baugher, a customer service supervisor in the utility department.
With respect to Allman, the court held that there were disputed facts as to whether Allman was actually a manager or a cashier. A week before Smith was sworn in as Mayor, she exercised her seniority to move to an open cashier position int he utility department. Upon taking office, Mayor Smith promoted her back to manager, and then fired her. Because it was not clear whether she held a position that might be exempt from First Amendment protections (office manager) or not (cashier), the issue was remanded to the district court.
As to Baugher, the 7th Circuit considered the Supreme Court's rulings in Elrod and Branti, which established the standards to apply in determining whether a particular employee was exempt from First Amendment protections for termination on political grounds. These include the supervisory nature of the position, whether the position has any significant discretion over matters of high political value, and whether the position has any policy-making authority. In this case, the 7th Circuit held that a customer-service supervisor is not a position that entails political discretion. As a result, the district court did not err in denying qualified immunity to the Mayor for terminating Baugher, and Baugher's case against the Mayor will continue. Allman v. Smith (7th Cir. June 24, 2015)