Court: Fired Williams worker can file free-speech suit against city in age case

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the former Williams water superintendent can sue the city for violating his First Amendment rights by firing him in what he said was retaliation for an age-discrimination complaint.

A divided panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that Ronnie Stilwell’s free-speech suit was not barred by provisions of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

The ruling overturns a U.S. District Court decision that had tossed out Stilwell’s suit.

Williams officials could not be reached Friday and the city’s attorney in the case, Kenneth H. Brendel, declined to comment, saying he had not had the chance to read the opinion.

Stilwell’s attorney, Charles Anthony Shaw, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Stilwell became superintendent of the Williams Water Department in 1991 and served until 2011, when he was fired after a city investigation into complaints about his performance.

But Stilwell said the firing was in retaliation for his agreement in 2009 to testify in an age-discrimination suit brought against the city by its former director of human resources.

Stilwell said that when then-Assistant City Manager Joe Duffy learned that Stilwell planned to testify in the age-discrimination suit, he began to call Stilwell’s performance into question.

He said Duffy met with him multiple times to discourage him from testifying in the suit – at one point telling Stilwell to find a way out of testifying, according the court ruling. Duffy also began accusing Stilwell of mishandling his job responsibilities.

Stilwell was placed on paid administrative leave in December 2010 pending the investigation into his performance, and fired in January 2011.

Stilwell sued on a number of grounds, but the district court rejected his claims. It ruled, among other things, that retaliation protections laid out in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act precluded his separate suit for a First Amendment violation.

But the appeals court panel disagreed, leaving Stilwell free to pursue his suit against the city.

The majority opinion by Judge Michelle T. Friedland said that Congress did not intend to preclude suits making constitutional claims when it passed the age-discrimination act.

In his dissent, Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez said the court’s task was to “determine whether Congress intended to make the ADEA exclusive.”

“We have already said that Congress did just that,” Fernandez wrote, pointing to a previous case in which the 9th Circuit established that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act is the “exclusive remedy” for claims related to age discrimination.