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Media Alerts - Lane v. Anderson, et al. -- Fourth Circuit
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September 23, 2016
  Lane v. Anderson, et al. -- Fourth Circuit
Speak Up! Wounded Officer May Bring First Amendment Claim Arising From Police-Related Shooting

Areas of Law: First Amendment; Constitutional Law; Civil Procedure; Employment

Issues Presented: Whether the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine in a First Amendment retaliatory discharge case when the plaintiff's claim previously failed in state court. Whether the Baltimore City Sheriff was entitled to qualified immunity in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim by a police officer who was terminated after giving media interviews about potential police misconduct and corruption. Whether the Baltimore City Sheriff was entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 First Amendment retaliation claim. Whether Baltimore City was liable for the Baltimore City Sheriff's termination of a police officer.

Brief Summary: In an unpublished per curiam opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held the District Court had subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action for retaliatory discharge though the claim previously failed in Maryland state court. Moreover, the Fourth Circuit denied qualified immunity to the Baltimore City Sheriff on the basis that the First Amendment protects against the termination of a police officer for speaking out against misconduct and corruption in a media interview. The Fourth Circuit also reversed the District Court's judgment granting Eleventh Amendment immunity to the Baltimore City Sheriff and remanded the case for full consideration of the four-factor Ram Ditta analysis. Finally, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court's holding that Baltimore City could not be held liable for the Baltimore City Sheriff's termination of a deputy sheriff.

Extended Summary: On September 15, 2008, appellant James Lane ("Lane"), a former deputy sheriff, suffered a gunshot wound to the face while attempting to execute an arrest warrant with fellow officers at a home in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in West Baltimore. During the incident, another officer shot and killed 25-year-old Emory Lamont Lewis ("Lewis"), who was wanted under a different warrant for the first-degree murder of his former girlfriend. After the incident, the Baltimore City Sheriff's Office ("BCSO") conducted an internal investigation and concluded it was Lewis who shot Lane in the face. Skeptical of the investigation's conclusions, Lane informed his superiors that he believed another officer accidentally shot him during the incident. Lane's superiors dismissed his concerns and transferred Lane out of the Warrant Apprehension Task Force.

In December 2010, Lane gave interviews to multiple media outlets, during which he expressed doubt about the internal investigation and concern that the BCSO was attempting to cover up misconduct. In response to Lane's interviews, the BCSO administratively charged Lane with two counts of engaging in conduct that reflected unfavorably upon the BCSO, two counts of representing the BCSO publicly without permission, one count of publicly criticizing the BCSO, and one count of making false statements. The hearing board found Lane guilty of five out of the six counts, but concluded that Lane was not guilty of making false statements. Despite the hearing board's recommendation of a five-day suspension without pay, Baltimore City Sheriff John W. Anderson ("Sheriff Anderson") terminated Lane on the basis that his actions brought "disrepute" to the agency.

After unsuccessfully appealing his termination through Maryland state court, Lane filed in federal court a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against Sheriff Anderson, in his official and individual capacities, and against Baltimore City, alleging retaliatory discharge in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech and in violation of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. Dismissing his complaint, the District Court concluded (1) it lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine; (2) Sheriff Anderson was entitled to qualified immunity and Eleventh Amendment immunity; and (3) Baltimore City was not liable for Sheriff Anderson's actions as a Maryland official.

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars federal district courts from directly reviewing state-court decisions. As a threshold matter, the Fourth Circuit held that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine did not apply in the instant case, because Lane's claim sought relief from the injury caused by his termination and not by the state-court decision.

Turning to the issues of immunity, the Fourth Circuit engaged in the two-prong analysis set forth in Smith v. Gilchrist, 749 F.3d 302 (4th Cir. 2014), and concluded that Sheriff Anderson was not entitled to qualified immunity. This two-factor analysis requires an examination of whether the allegations substantiate a violation of a federal statutory or constitutional right, and whether the violation was of a clearly established right of which a reasonable person would have known. First, the Fourth Circuit determined that the First Amendment protected Lane's speech on the basis that (1) he spoke on a matter of public concern when he discussed potential police misconduct and corruption to the media; (2) Sheriff Anderson failed to justify Lane's termination by asserting only generalized concerns about the speech's polarizing effects; and (3) Lane's speech was a substantial factor in his termination. Turning to the second prong in the analysis, the Fourth Circuit found that, at the time of Lane's discharge, it was clearly established in the circuit that the First Amendment protects against the termination of a law enforcement officer for speaking out against misconduct and corruption surrounding a police-involved shooting. On the issue of Eleventh Amendment immunity, the Fourth Circuit remanded the case for full consideration, reasoning that the District Court erroneously failed to employ the four-factor test described in Ram Ditta v. Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, 822 F.2d 456 (4th Cir. 1987).

Finally, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court's holding that Baltimore City could not be held liable for Lane's termination on the basis that Sheriff Anderson did not act as a Baltimore City policymaker when making employment decisions. Citing Monell v. Department of Social Services of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), the Fourth Circuit recognized that a municipality may be liable in a § 1983 claim if an official municipal policy resulted in the alleged constitutional violation. Although he had final policy-making authority for employment decisions within the BCSO, Sheriff Anderson derived his authority from state law and therefore did not act as a Baltimore City policymaker when he terminated Lane.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Judges King, Diaz, and Thacker

Argument Date: 05/12/2016

Date of Issued Opinion: 08/17/2016

Docket Number: 15-2153

Decided: Affirmed in part; reversed and remanded in part by unpublished per curiam opinion

Case Alert Author: Linda Morris, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Howard Benjamin Hoffman, Rockville, Maryland, for Appellant. Jason L. Levine, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Annapolis, Maryland; Jason Robert Foltin, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Steven H. Goldblatt, Director, Shon Hopwood, Appellate Litigation Program, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY LAW CENTER, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Brian E. Frosh, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee Anderson. George A. Nilson, City Solicitor, William R. Phelan, Jr., Chief Solicitor, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee Mayor and City Council of Baltimore. Deborah A. Jeon, Sonia Kumar, Nicholas Steiner, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland; Debra Gardner, Tassity Johnson, PUBLIC JUSTICE CENTER, Baltimore, Maryland, for Amici American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland and Public Justice Center.

Author of Opinion: Per Curiam

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 09/23/2016 08:35 AM     4th Circuit  

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