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Mass. federal court says jury could reasonably find that Framingham School Committee retaliated against social worker for speaking out about sexual assault

Yesterday, a federal court in Massachusetts held that a jury could reasonably find that the Framingham School Committee retaliated against a social worker because that social worker spoke out about sexual assaults that occurred at Framingham High School (“FHS”).

According to the court, a jury could reasonably determine that the social worker heard from two female students that the same male student had sexually assaulted them. The social worker had a meeting with the FHS principal and vice principal to discuss what FHS should do about the male student who allegedly sexually assaulted the two female students who had complained to the social worker. The social worker told the principal and vice-principal that he thought they should notify the district attorney about the allegations. The social worker claims that the principal resisted this idea because he did not want the allegations to become public. When the social worker pushed back, the principal told him that if he did not like the principal’s “leadership style,” he did not have to work there.

Later in the semester, the social worker emailed the principal again expressing his dissatisfaction with how FHS had handled the sexual assault allegations and also expressed his views, in general, on the issue of sexual assault. Soon after this email, the social worker claims that the principal began to look for reasons to discipline him. Three days after the social worker sent the email, the principal disciplined the social worker for not counseling a student. The social worker claims that he was never advised of that student’s counseling needs. The social worker grieved the discipline and won his grievance.

After he won his grievance, the social worker says that the principal directed him to take administrative leave but the social worker refused. The social worker also claims that principal repeatedly asked him if he was going to resign. Also around this time, a “Framingham Whistleblower” Facebook page was launched and the allegations of sexual assault appeared on it. The principal conducted an investigation and the social worker claimed that the principal’s interview of him during that investigation was an intimidation tactic. The principal found no evidence that the social worker was linked to the Facebook page. But the social worker resigned because of the principal’s allegedly retaliatory treatment.

The court held that a jury could reasonably find that the Framingham School Committee violated the Massachusetts Whistleblower Act and Title IX, a federal law, by retaliating against the social worker for speaking out against FHS’s handling of the sexual assault allegations. The court, however, dismissed the social worker’s claim that the Framingham School Committee violated his First Amendment rights when it retaliated against him for speaking out against sexual assault at FHS. The court dismissed that claim because of a Supreme Court case, Garcetti v. Ceballos, which held that when an employee speaks as an employee, instead of a private citizen, the First Amendment does not prohibit his employer from retaliating against him.

The Garcetti case was roundly criticized by workers’ advocates and groups that favor robust protections of First Amendment rights. Luckily, in this case, there were laws that protected the social worker and, thus, the dismissal of his First Amendment claims will not deprive him of his chance to take his case to trial.