First Amendment

Ethics lawyer who was fired over tweets about Islam can pursue damages, 6th Circuit says

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A federal appeals court has ruled that a Tennessee legal ethics lawyer who was fired for tweeting about Islam can seek damages against his former supervisor.

In its March 20 opinion, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Cincinnati sided with Gerald Dean Morgan of Tennessee, who began working as a disciplinary counsel with the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Responsibility in 2019. A year later, Morgan was terminated over Twitter posts from 2015 and 2016 that he claimed were political in nature and related to the presidential race between former President Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

According to Reuters, which has coverage of the case, one of Morgan’s tweets said: “Where’s the evidence that ‘Islam is a religion of peace?’”

A lawyer who was under investigation by the board complained that the tweets demonstrated substantial bias against Muslims, which chief disciplinary counsel Sandra Garrett cited in her reasons for Morgan’s firing.

In his lawsuit, Morgan argued that he was wrongfully terminated in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech and sought monetary damages. While Garrett argued that she was entitled to “absolute quasi-judicial immunity,” the 6th Circuit disagreed.

“Though it is true that Garrett is entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity for her official judicial acts, it does not mean that she is entitled to immunity for all official acts,” the appeals court said. “After all, quasi-judicial immunity only extends the same immunity a judge would enjoy to nonjudicial officials performing tasks intertwined with the judicial process.”

The 6th Circuit noted that many other courts have determined that hiring and firing are administrative or executive—and not judicial—tasks.

“Judicial immunity, though absolute and firm, is something to be applied carefully and should not be extended further than its justification warrants,” the appeals court said. “Extending judicial immunity in this case would extend its reach to areas previously denied—namely administrative acts like hiring and firing employees.”

The 6th Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of Morgan’s request for monetary relief against Garrett and remanded the case.

The federal appeals court, however, upheld the lower court’s ruling that barred Morgan from pursuing monetary and injunctive relief against the board.

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