During a change in governmental administration, such as the State will undergo soon, many public employees wonder if they will lose their jobs simply because they were hired by, and are presumed to be associated with, the political party who is losing power. It is generally understood that public sector jobs which require close work with and service to an elected official may be impacted by the opposite political affiliation of the employee and the elected official.
Courts have long held that elected officials have a right to have politically like minded staff in positions that work closely with them, focusing its analysis on “whether the job in question entails substantial policymaking responsibility, meaningful discretion to implement the policy goals of elected officials, or a need to maintain the confidentiality essential to enabling robust deliberations entailing disagreement and incorporating political objectives.” But how do you apply that framework of analysis in any particular case?
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals addressed this question earlier this week in the case of Bogart v. Vermilion County, Illinois. Plaintiff was the Financial Resources Director of the County of Vermilion. Her job description listed duties such as assisting in preparation of the County Budget, developing long and short-term financial goals for the County, and advising and reporting directly to the County Board Chairman. Plaintiff, a Democrat, was discharged after the County Board changed from a predominantly Democratic Party affiliated Board, to a majority of Republican Board members and a Republican County Board Chairman. She sued the County alleging political retaliation and violation of her First Amendment protections.
In affirming the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims, the court found that the job description for Financial Resources Director identified duties that established the position as policy making as well as confidential. The court reiterated that resolution of these types of claims requires “focus on the inherent powers of the office as presented in the official job description,” while also looking at “how the description was created and when, and how often, it was updated.” In the present case the court found that not only did plaintiff confirm the accuracy of the job description, but also that she assisted in its update.
While certainly exceptions exist to reliance on the job description to establish whether the job holder enjoys First Amendment protections against dismissal based on political affiliation, it is important for public sector employers to regularly update job descriptions, even of the highest ranked members of the organization, to ensure that they fairly and accurately characterize the authority of the position.