A U.S. District Court judge in Maryland denied the Frederick County Board of Education’s motion to dismiss a former employee’s First Amendment violation claim on Thursday, finding it reasonable to argue that the employee had been fired for releasing information to the press, according to court documents.
Roy Rippeon, an electrician employed with Frederick County Public Schools since 1999, filed suit against the board for defamation, breach of contract, wrongful discharge, civil conspiracy, and violations of his rights to due process and free speech after he was fired in July 2008. Rippeon argued that he was terminated for speaking with the media about witnessing fellow employees engage in fraudulent activity, said Jason Ostendorf, Rippeon’s lawyer.
“He reported wage fraud with taxpayer money to the news media and was fired for it. That’s a First Amendment violation,” Ostendorf said.
After allegedly observing coworkers falsify time sheets, Rippeon raised concerns with Robert Wilkinson, the director of his department, and others within the school district. But when he was met with accusations of insubordination and threatened with sanctions, he reported the fraud to a local television station.
Three hours after a reporter contacted the district requesting an interview to discuss the accusations, Wilkinson sent an email to the senior human resource manager recommending Rippeon's employment be terminated, court documents said. He was formally fired for insubordination soon after. His appeals to Superintendent Linda Burgee and the board of education were each denied in what Rippeon called a “bogus” process.
The court upheld Rippeon’s First Amendment claim, finding the possibility of a clear relationship between his decision to speak to the media and the board’s decision to fire him.
“They (Rippeon’s supervisors) get a call from the news reporter and the secretary sends an email to the supervisor, and then within three hours it’s recommended that Mr. Rippeon be terminated. So it’s very easy for a jury to conclude that he was fired for speaking to the press,” Ostendorf said.
Wilkinson also told Rippeon that involving the media “was inappropriate and could have resulted in harsh discipline, up to and including termination,” according to a letter between the two.
The court upheld Rippeon’s claims of breach of contract and violation of his 14th Amendment right to due process as well. His claims of defamation, wrongful discharge and civil conspiracy, however, were dismissed based on his failure to comply with procedures of the Maryland Local Government Tort Claims Act.
A trial date has not been set. The school district declined an opportunity to comment for this story.