Allegations of a politically motivated lay-off were the subject of a recent U.S. District Court decision out of Gary, Indiana. In Moore v. Calumet Township of Lake City, Plaintiff Marsha Moore filed suit against Calumet Township of Lake County and the Calumet Township Trustee, Kimberly Robinson, claiming that Defendants violated her First Amendment right to political association when they terminated her employment. 2:18-CV-106-TLS, 2022 WL 196366, at *1 (N.D. Ind. Jan. 21, 2022). In 2014, Ms. Moore, who had worked in the Calumet Township Trustee Office since 1990, actively supported and campaigned for the reelection of her then-supervisor, Mary Elgin, to the Township Trustee position. Ms. Robinson, one of the defendants, was the opposing candidate in the race. On several occasions Ms. Robinson witnessed the plaintiff campaigning in an Elgin t-shirt, holding an Elgin sign, and displaying an Elgin bumper sticker on her car.
Ms. Robinson beat Mary Elgin in the election and took office in January 2015. In July 2016, Ms. Robinson reorganized the plaintiff’s division, replacing a deputy and assistant deputy position with three coequal manager positions. Ms. Robinson filled these three new manager positions with Ms. Moore and two other junior employees who were not only Ms. Robinson’s political supporters but had also previously been supervised by Ms. Moore. Six months later, citing budgetary constraints, Ms. Robinson fired Ms. Moore. However, the other two managers remained employed.
On the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the court held that a reasonable jury could find that Defendants violated Ms. Moore’s First Amendment right to political association and retaliated against Ms. Moore for exercising her First Amendment right to free political speech. The plaintiff met her burden of showing that first, Ms. Robinson was aware of her political associations—because Ms. Robinson had observed Ms. Moore’s various campaign activities—and second, Ms. Robinson’s decision to terminate Ms. Moore was politically-motivated. Ms. Moore was fired even though she was the most experienced manager in her division and had previously supervised the other two managers. Defendants failed to identify any issues with Ms. Moore’s work performance, as they only justified her termination based on budget limitations and did not explain why Ms. Moore was selected to be fired instead of one of the other two managers. For these reasons, the court found that the circumstantial evidence of political motivation was strong enough to preclude summary judgment on the plaintiff’s First Amendment claims. The case is ongoing, although the parties held a settlement conference before a magistrate judge in early February.