Minneapolis Captain Prevails in First Amendment Demotion Suit

A Minneapolis deputy chief who was demoted to captain for criticizing the department’s former fire chief, gained vindication yesterday when a Federal court jury awarded her  $420,000.

Former Deputy Chief (now Captain) Jean Kidd, 53, claimed that her 2009 demotion was because of  the responses she gave to a 360 degree leadership survey that she was asked to complete about then-Fire Chief Alex Jackson.

According to Chief Kidd’s attorney, John Klassen “She honestly answered that he had strengths and honestly criticized his weaknesses, which were lack of vision, lack of business knowledge, failure to plan.”  Chief Jackson allegedly received the results of the survey on June 19, 2009 and demoted Chief Kidd on June 30.

Chief Jackson’s publicly stated reason for the demotion was that Chief Kidd  “was detrimental to the chemistry of his team,” and that he did not want team members who were unhappy and unable to get along with others. Chief Kidd sued claiming the demotion was in retaliation for the exercise of her First Amendment rights.

What appears to have been a pretty insurmountable obstacle in the case for Chief Jackson was explaining how on June 18, 2009, just one day before he received the results of the survey and twelve days before her demoted her, he signed off on a “glowing” job review of Chief Kidd that citing her for her interpersonal skills and ability to get along with co-workers.

That opened the door for Klassen to argue to the jury “what happened during the 12 days after that review to get the chief to do a 180 on his assessment?”

Apparently the jury did not buy Chief Jackson’s explanation, and returned a $420,000 verdict for Chief Kidd. The verdict included $90,000 for economic losses associated with the demotion, $30,000 for emotional distress and $300,000 in punitive damages.

Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal was quoted by the Minneapolis Star Tribune that she was “disappointed” by the jury’s decision. “We continue to believe that our former chief acted in good faith.”

Good faith or not, those who have been following recent First Amendment case law know that employees such as Chief Kidd have not fared well in cases such as this when they are not clearly speaking as a “private citizen” about a matter of public concern. No doubt, that issue will figure prominently in the city’s appeal plans. It is probably what Segal was referring to when she told reporters “There are some legal issues with the verdict that we are reviewing and we may decide to bring before court some post trial motions.”

Incidentally, Chief Kidd was a runner up for the fire chief’s job in 2007 when Chief Jackson was appointed. Chief Jackson retired last February amidst a great deal of criticism from the city council.

No word on whether Chief Kidd will get her rank back. She has said she plans to retire next year. More on the story. 

Also – here is an order entered last August in the case that discusses the facts and the First Amendment issues. I have to admit that my understanding of the First Amendment rights of public employees is a lot closer to that of the trial judge, Susan Richard Nelson, than what we have been seeing from the US Supreme Court or many of the circuits in recent years.  Kidd v Jackson

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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