The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that a former fire captain who was sacked for sending emails to his Christian firefighters fellowship group using his work account can sue his former employer.
The justices had decided on Thursday that the merits of former Spokane Valley Fire Department (SVFD) Captain Jon Sprague's case were strong enough to warrant a trial to determine whether his First Amendment rights were violated.
The trial would decide whether Sprague is entitled to damages caused by the termination of his employment in 2012 when he repeatedly used his work email to send messages to the Spokane Christian Firefighters Fellowship group even after he was explicitly warned not to.
The department's own Civil Service Commission has upheld Sprague's firing. The case has been dismissed by the Spokane County Superior Court, a decision upheld by the state Court of Appeals.
The state Supreme Court, however, ruled that the court of Appeals has not addressed the merit of Sprague's claims.
"Sprague has met his initial burden to show that the SVFD's restrictions on his speech violated the First Amendment. On remand, the burden will shift to SVFD to show by preponderance of the evidence that it would have reached the same decision as to (Sprague's) employment termination even in the absence of the protected conduct," the court stated.
Under the fire department's policy, firefighters are only allowed to use the email system for department purpose only. But Sprague pointed out that the email system has been routinely used by employees for non-business-related purposes and that his firing was a selective enforcement of that rule.
According to Sprague, other employees have used the email system for purposes, such as seeking babysitting and selling concert tickets, as well as discussions of substance abuse and conflicts with children.
"To me it seems crystal clear it's a violation of free speech rights. You can't single someone out with a different viewpoint. It's not a surprise it ended up at the Supreme Court. Whoever won, we knew it would be appealed, and expect to see police and fire departments alter their rules after this," Sprague's lawyer Matt Albrecht told the Spokesman-Review.
Albrecht said that the only possible defense left for the department is that Sprague had been fired for a different reason, which he says is unlikely as "they described him to be a great firefighter."
Sprague, who no longer lives in the Spokane area, had stated last year that he was not surprised that the high court decided to review his case, saying his actions had a solid constitutional foundation.
A fire department spokesperson said in a statement that the department is reviewing the court documents and is now in discussion with an attorney regarding the next steps of the case.