Sabrina Tice began working for the Sheriff’s Department in Lincoln County, Oklahoma as a full-time deputy in 2012. Charlie Dougherty was the elected Sheriff. Tice’s husband, John Tice, also worked as a deputy with the Department.
In 2015, Mr. Tice was indicted on criminal charges related to an alleged excessive use of force. Given the charges, the Department terminated Mr. Tice’s employment. Tice was unhappy about the termination decision and allegedly yelled at Dougherty to express her disagreement, but she was not disciplined for the outburst.
In September 2015, Tice filed a complaint against Captain Jack Johnson for making derogatory remarks about her husband. On the same day, Tice surreptitiously recorded a conversation with Johnson. Tice also recorded conversations with several other officers. Although Tice’s direct supervisor was aware of her behavior, Tice was not disciplined.
The charges against Mr. Tice were subsequently dismissed, and in April 2016, Mr. Tice declared his candidacy for sheriff in the upcoming election. Tice openly supported her husband’s campaign. Dougherty won reelection, and the next day, he terminated Tice’s employment.
After her termination, Tice filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court, alleging that Dougherty violated her First Amendment right to association because he fired her for supporting her husband’s candidacy for Sheriff. When a trial court refused to dismiss the lawsuit, Dougherty challenged the decision in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Court refused to dismiss the lawsuit. The Court noted that “an adverse employment action in close proximity to protected speech, plus the Employer’s knowledge of the protected conduct, may be sufficiently probative to show the Employee’s protected conduct was a substantial factor in the adverse employment decision. In this case, Dougherty fired Tice the day after he won reelection.
“Dougherty argues the temporal proximity should be measured from the day Mr. Tice announced his candidacy because Tice supported her husband’s campaign from the beginning. Using this measure, Dougherty contends he didn’t fire Tice until more than six months after she engaged in protected conduct. And this gap, he argues, is too long, standing alone, to establish a causal link.
“Other evidence undercuts this argument. Dougherty testified, for example, that the only reason he didn’t fire Tice during the election was because it would look bad. Given Dougherty’s admission that he would have fired Tice earlier if it wouldn’t have adversely affected his campaign, there is a clear temporal proximity between Tice’s protected conduct – supporting her husband’s campaign – and her termination. It’s also undisputed that Dougherty knew about Tice’s open support for Mr. Tice’s candidacy. Thus, the temporal proximity combined with Dougherty’s knowledge of Tice’s protected activity supports a reasonable inference that Tice’s political association was a substantial factor in her discharge.
“But that’s not all. Causation can also be shown where the Employer expressed opposition to the Employee’s speech. Although Dougherty treated Tice well during the election, undersheriff Tim Donaldson acted hostilely toward her because of her political affiliation. For example, after Tice participated in a parade for her husband’s campaign, Donaldson texted Tice a picture of herself in the parade with the caption: ‘No loyalty, shameful & embarrassing, guess you didn’t abstain from campaigning after all.’ While Dougherty knew about Donaldson’s harassment, he still relied on Donaldson’s recommendation in deciding to terminate Tice’s employment. Thus, Dougherty may not have expressly opposed Tice’s political association, but he tacitly condoned Donaldson’s opposition to and harassment of Tice by relying on his recommendations to fire her.”
Tice v. Dougherty, 2021 WL 717047 (10th Cir. 2021).
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