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Discharged Atlanta Fire Chief Strikes Back in Federal Lawsuit

Posted on: December 24th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

Kelvin J. Cochran, who was discharged as Chief of the Atlanta, Georgia, Fire and Rescue Department (AFRD) after he self-published a book asserting negative views about homosexuality and same-sex marriage based on his religious beliefs, has struck back at the City and Mayor Kasim Reed with a lawsuit claiming a violation of his constitutional rights.  On December 16, U.S. District Judge Leigh Martin May issued a ruling dismissing some of Cochran’s claims, but allowing others to go forward.  Cochran v. City of Atlanta, 2015 WL 9244523 (N.D. Ga., Dec. 16, 2015).

Cochran became the Atlanta Fire Chief in 2008.  He left for ten months in 2009 to serve as Administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration in Washington, D.C., but returned and continued in the Atlanta position until he was suspended as a result of the controversy surrounding his book and ultimately discharged on January 6, 2015.

Cochran, self-described as a devout evangelical Christian and an active member of Atlanta’s Elizabeth Baptist Church, wrote and self-published a book titled “Who Told You That You Were Naked?: Overcoming the Stronghold of Condemnation.”  The book grew out of a men’s Bible study group at his church, and was intended as a guide to men to help them “fulfill God’s purpose for their lives.”  One of those purposes, according to Cochran’s book, is to avoid any sexual activity outside of a traditional heterosexual marriage, expressing the view that homosexual activity and same-sex marriage are immoral and inconsistent with God’s plan.

Cochran consulted the City’s Ethics Officer about whether a city official could write a “non-work-related, faith-based book,” and was told he could do that “so long as the subject matter of the book was not the city government or fire department,” but he did not obtain a written ruling.  He later asked the Ethic Officer if he could identify himself in the book as Atlanta Fire Chief, and she responded in the affirmative.  Cochran placed the book for sale on Amazon.com, and distributed free copies to various individuals, including Mayor Reed, some members of the city council, and various Fire Department employees whom he considered to be Christians (some of whom knew he was writing the book and had requested copies).

A Fire Department employee who saw the book and objected to its statements about sexual morality contacted City Councilmember Alex Wan to complain, which led Wan to initiate discussions at the City’s “upper management” level.  This led to a meeting of top City officials with Mayor Reed.  On November 24, 2014, Cochran received a letter informing him that he was suspended without pay for 30 days while the City determined what to do.  Among other things, the City cited an ordinance prohibiting city officials from engaging in outside employment for pay without written permission from the Ethics office.  At the same time, Mayor Reed went public about disagreeing with Cochran’s views expressed in the book, stating “I profoundly disagree with and am deeply disturbed by the sentiments expressed in the paperback regarding the LGBT community” and disassociating his administration from those views.  Councilmember Wan released a statement to the local newspaper that “I respect each individual’s right to have their own thoughts, beliefs and opinions, but when you’re a city employee, and those thoughts, beliefs and opinions are different from the city’s, you have to check them at the door.”  Cochran’s suspension and statements by Reed, Wan and other city officials led to extensive media coverage.  On January 6, 2015, Cochran was informed of his discharge.

Atlanta has had local legislation banning sexual orientation discrimination for many years, and has long provided benefits for same-sex partners of city employees.  At the time this controversy arose late in 2014, a federal district court had ruled against the constitutionality of Georgia’s ban on same-sex marriage, but the matter was still pending on appeal in the courts.  Atlanta government leaders had openly supported the litigation for marriage equality.  Cochran’s views expressed in the book were apparently out of synch with the views of the City’s elected leadership.  However, Cochran claimed in his federal complaint that he has never been accused of discriminating as Fire Chief on the basis of sexual orientation.

Cochran’s lawsuit poses a classic and recurring policy question: to what extent can a state or local government require public officials to refrain from publicizing their views on controversial public issues when those views conflict with official policies as articulated by politically-accountable officials?  The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a series of important decisions since first addressing this issue in 1968 in Pickering v. Board of Education.  That case involved a public high school teacher who was discharged after publishing a letter in a local newspaper that was critical of the board of education’s budget proposals (which had been twice rejected by local voters).  The Court held that public employees are protected by First Amendment free speech rights when expressing views on matters of public concern when they are speaking in their capacity as private citizens, but such protection is not absolute: the court must conduct a balancing test weighing the employee’s free speech rights against the employer’s legitimate concerns about being able to carry out governmental functions.  Speech that results in disruption of those functions may lose its constitutional protection.  Subsequent rulings have clarified that when a public employee is speaking in an official capacity, he is speaking for the government and can be disciplined or discharged when his speech contradicts government policy.

Cochran filed a nine-count complaint against the city and Mayor Reed, raising various claims under the 1st and 14th Amendments.  Although Judge May dismissed some of those claims, and ultimately found that Mayor Reed enjoyed qualified immunity from personal liability to Cochran, she concluded that his complaint alleged facts sufficient to maintain several of his 1st Amendment claims as well as one of his 14th Amendment Due Process claims.

Cochran’s complaint leads off with a claim that he was fired in retaliation for constitutionally protected speech.  Judge May determined that Cochran’s speech satisfied the requirement that it be on a matter of public concern and that he was speaking as a private citizen (even though his book’s “About the Author” section identifies him as Atlanta’s Fire Chief), making his claim subject to the Supreme Court’s Pickering balancing test.  The City argued that the AFRD has a “need to secure discipline, mutual respect, trust and particular efficiency among the ranks due to its status as a quasi-military entity different from other public employers,” and thus that Cochran’s “interest in publishing and distributing a book ‘containing moral judgment about certain groups of people that caused at least one AFRD member enough concern to complaint to a City Councilmember'” could not outweigh the City’s interests in securing discipline and efficiency.

However, Judge May pointed out that on a motion to dismiss she is to evaluate the complaint based solely on the plaintiff’s allegations, and Cochran had alleged that his book did not threaten the City’s ability to administer public services and was not likely to do so.  Cochran claimed that the book did not interfere with AFRD internal operations, and that he had not told any AFRD employee that complying with his teachings or even reading his book “was in any way relevant to their status or advancement” within the Department.  Thus, Judge May could not find at this stage in the case as a matter of law “that Defendants’ interests outweigh Plaintiff’s First Amendment freedom of speech interests.  However,” she continued, “the factual development of this case may warrant a different conclusion.”

Cochran’s second count claims unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, focusing particularly on a section of the City Code that requires department heads to obtain prior written approval from the city’s Board of Ethics before “engaging in the provision of services for private interests for remuneration,” which he had not done.  Cochran protested the self-publication of a book did not come within this policy. The City claimed he had no standing to challenge this provision since he had never applied for written permission, but Judge May disagreed, rejecting the City’s motion to dismiss this count on the basis of standing.

Cochran’s third count alleges violation of his religious liberty rights, claiming he was terminated because he expressed his religiously-based viewpoint.  The City’s response was that he failed to allege that his religion compelled him to publish his views while serving as Fire Chief without obtaining prior written approval or to distribute the book to various city employees.  Judge May ruled that such allegations were not necessary to state a religious liberty claim, and that Cochran’s allegations “raise a plausible inference that Plaintiff sincerely held the religious beliefs that he contends were the reason for his firing,” so this claim would not be dismissed.  Similarly, Judge May found that Cochran adequately alleged facts to support his fourth claim, that the city’s action violated his 1st Amendment right to freedom of association “by terminating him for expressing religious beliefs in association with his church.”  However, May found insufficient Cochran’s allegations to support his claim of a violation of the 1st Amendment Establishment Clause, stating that at the hearing on the motion to dismiss “it became clear that although the Complaint contains an Establishment Clause claim, the exact contours of that claim. . . are unclear,” and that it appeared to be duplicative of other claims.  Although May dismissed this claim, she granted leave to Cochran to file an amended claim appropriately raising Establishment Clause issues.

Turning to Cochran’s Equal Protection Claim under the 14th Amendment, May found that Cochran had failed to allege sufficient facts to sustain this claim.  Most significantly, he had failed to identify a “comparator” in order to establish discrimination.  A “comparator” is somebody similarly situated to the Plaintiff who had articulated the opposite point of view without incurring adverse action from the City.  Cochran pointed to Mayor Reed, who had publicly articulated opposition to Cochran’s views, but the judge pointed out that Reed, as the elected chief executive of the city, was not similarly situated to Cochran, an appointed department head.  “As the Mayor,” wrote Judge May, “Reed is Plaintiff’s superior. . .  As the City’s ultimate decision-maker, Reed could not be similarly situated to Plaintiff, who is subject to Reed’s decision-making power.”  She also pointed out that Reed had not “ever tried to publish a book on morality that was approved by the City or even that Reed is from a different religious group from Plaintiff.  At bottom, the Court finds that Reed is too dissimilar to serve as a similarly situated comparator for numerous reasons.”  It was not sufficient for Cochran to allege that “numerous City employees” who were similarly situated to him were treated differently in this regard.  It appears that he is the only appointed City department head who had published a work of this kind.

Judge May dismissed Cochran’s claim that the City’s policy about outside work by city officials that was cited in support of his discharge was unduly vague, pointing out that prior similarly challenges to the policy had been rejected by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is binding on Georgia federal courts.  She also found that the public comments by Mayor Reed in connection with this controversy were not sufficiently personally “stigmatizing” of Cochran to sustain a “liberty interest” claim under the Due Process Clause.  However, she refused to dismiss a procedural due process claim, finding that the ordinances cited by the City in its briefs “do not establish that Plaintiff lacks a property interest in his employment.”  Under the 14th Amendment, the Courts have held that a public employee with a property interest in his job may not be deprived of that job in the absence of fair procedures, which Cochran claims he was not accorded in this case, where the decision to fire him was made unilaterally by the mayor.

As to personal liability by Mayor Reed, the ultimate decision-maker on Cochran’s discharge, Judge May found that it would not necessarily be clear to the Mayor that his actions were unconstitutional while exercising the discretionary function to discharge his Fire Chief, since the ultimate determination of that will rest on the court’s application of the Pickering balancing test.  Depending how that weighing turns out, the City may be held liable, but a municipal official in the position of the Mayor exercising a discretionary function of his office would not unless the outcome was clearly established as a matter of law.  The courts have developed this qualified immunity doctrine to avoid stifling the ability of public officials to exercise discretionary functions in situations where there is not a definite constitutional ban in place.

Ultimately, the question confronting Judge May is whether the Atlanta city administration is required to keep in office an appointed department head who has published views that are out of synch with the City’s policies.  If Cochran were a rank and file employee, he might well win some of his claims.  But as a department head with supervisory authority over a major public safety agency, he will confront significant difficulty in arguing that the elected officials responsible to the voters are constitutionally required to keep him in office, as Judge May intimated in ruling on his first free speech claim.