From the moment he assumed his position as a special education teacher at a DC elementary school, Bruno Mpoy found himself facing considerable problems on the job. He claimed that his hired teaching assistants behaved unprofessionally, undermining his authority in the classroom. He also complained about the dirty condition of his classroom and the lack of textbooks. His complaints to the principal, Donald Presswood, fell on deaf ears. Worse still, as Mpoy would later allege, Presswood had instructed him to falsify his students’ assessments to make it appear as if they were performing at a higher level. As Mpoy continued to complain to the principal, Presswood issued him disciplinary warnings and finally suspended him, without explanation.
After his suspension, Mpoy followed through on an earlier warning to Presswood that if the principal would not listen to him, he would report his concerns directly to the DC Chancellor, Michelle Rhee. In a detailed email, Mpoy informed Rhee of the conditions he faced at the school. Presswood subsequently secured Mpoy’s termination. Mpoy brought suit alleging, among other things, that DC Public Schools had terminated him because of his email to Rhee. Most significantly, he claimed that his single-sentence allegation in the email about Presswood’s student data falsification constituted First Amendment-protected speech and that his termination therefore violated the Constitution.
Chief Judge Garland filed the opinion for the court, affirming the lower court’s holding that Mpoy’s statement about Presswood’s misconduct did not constitute protected speech under the First Amendment, and that even if it did, Chancellor Rhee and the principal were entitled to qualified immunity. Applying the Supreme Court’s First Amendment balancing test in Garcetti v. Ceballos, as restated through a 2009 DC Circuit opinion, Winder v. Erste, Judge Garland held that Mpoy had made a statement pursuant to his official duties and therefore wasn’t speaking as a citizen for First Amendment purposes. Therefore, the Constitution would not insulate his communications from employer discipline.
The email, Judge Garland decided, was unprotected by the First Amendment because it reported conduct that interfered with his job responsibilities. In his email, Mpoy identified himself by his employment position, and complained for five pages about the other conduct that interfered with his job responsibilities. Because of this context, Judge Garland was convinced that Mpoy wrote this sentence not as a concerned citizen, but in the context of his official duties. Judge Garland also agreed with the district court that the school officials were entitled to qualified immunity because their termination of Mpoy based on the email was reasonable, given First Amendment precedent on the issue.