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Thursday, January 31, 2019
Fresh off the press
Judge rejects former Morgan sheriff's immunity bid
By Eric Fleischauer Metro Editor
Glenda Lockhart. [JERONIMO NISA/DECATUR DAILY]
A federal judge this week rejected a claim by former Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin that she was immune from a former deputy’s lawsuit.
Rick Sherman alleged in his lawsuit that Franklin forced him to resign because she was under the mistaken belief that he had contributed to a blog sharply critical of the sheriff. Franklin threatened to have the Sheriff’s Office stop funding his legal defense in an unrelated action if he did not resign, Sherman alleged. Because Franklin was motivated by a desire to suppress free speech, Sherman argued, her actions violated his First Amendment rights.
“Sheriff Franklin’s alleged decision to find a way to terminate him because she believed he contributed to the blog concerning public corruption in the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department would violate Mr. Sherman’s constitutional rights,” wrote Madeline Haikala, U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Alabama.Including this one, Haikala is the judge in three suits against Franklin that involve the Morgan County Whistleblower blog, operated by Falkville resident Glenda Lockhart. Lawsuits by Lockhart and by former Morgan County Warden Leon Bradley also allege Franklin retaliated against them due to the blog. Franklin did not run for re-election and this month was replaced by Sheriff Ron Puckett.
“I believe we were retaliated against and I’ll always believe that, but I believe it was the information in the blog — not the blog itself — that kept her from running again,” Lockhart said after the ruling. “No matter what she did to us, it was the facts that mattered.”
Franklin, who declined to comment about the court order, this month pleaded guilty to misdemeanor failure to file a tax return. Her sentencing hearing has not been scheduled.
Sherman’s case is in its early stages. Through her lawyer, Franklin argued that even if the allegations in his complaint were true, the case should be dismissed because Franklin was immune from liability because as sheriff she had discretion to make employment decisions.
While rejecting Franklin’s arguments, Haikala noted that evidence could change the ruling.“If she wishes, Sheriff Franklin may present her arguments again on a more developed evidentiary record,” Haikala wrote.
Haikala ruled that Franklin’s alleged threat to stop funding the lawsuit against Sherman was sufficient to constitute a constructive discharge of Sherman, even though he wasn’t fired.
Franklin’s lawyer, Robert Lockwood of Huntsville, did not respond to a request for comment. In his motion to dismiss, he argued that the First Amendment only protects actual speech, not perceived speech.
“In this case, Mr. Sherman does not claim that he actually spoke about anything,” Lockwood wrote. “Instead, he actually denies any speech. But, there is no claim for First Amendment retaliation without speech of some kind.”
Haikala rejected this argument. She concluded the key issue was not whether Sherman in fact leaked information to Lockhart’s blog, but whether Franklin forced him out because she believed he had done so.
In determining whether Franklin enjoyed immunity from liability for the termination, Haikala utilized a balancing test. Sherman alleged Franklin forced him out, and then blackballed him with other law enforcement offices, in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech.
The task for Haikala, then, was to balance the importance of Sherman’s speech regarding alleged corruption against Franklin’s interest in promoting efficiency in the Sheriff’s Office.
“There is no doubt that reports of corruption within a law enforcement department may be disruptive, but Morgan County’s interest in preventing speech about corruption is low,” Haikala wrote. “… Sheriff Franklin’s alleged decision to find a way to terminate him because she believed he contributed to the blog concerning public corruption in the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department would violate Mr. Sherman’s constitutional right to free speech.”