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Court Revives Suit on School Employee's Loyalty to Former Boss

A federal appeals court on Monday revived the employment-discrimination lawsuit of a school district worker who alleges she was demoted for showing loyalty to her ousted supervisor.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, unanimously overturned a summary judgment for the Washoe County, Nev., district in the case of Kathleen Nichols, who was an administrative assistant to the district's general counsel.

According to court papers, when the general counsel, Jeffrey Blanck, got into hot water with the district superintendent, Nichols was transferred to a job in the human-resources department. As the school board weighed whether to dismiss Blanck, other senior administrators perceived that Nichols was showing loyalty to the general counsel. For example, she sat next to him at a board meeting where his fate was being discussed, and after the board dismissed Blanck, she relayed some information to him by phone.

Nichols' pay was frozen and she was encouraged to retire, which she did at a reduced benefit level, her suit alleges. She sued the district and some administrators, alleging that her First Amendment right to associate with Blanck was violated by the district's actions.

A federal district court ruled for the district, holding that Nichols was a confidential employee vulnerable to a patronage dismissal without regard for her First Amendment rights.

Under the "patronage-dismissal doctrine," government employees can sometimes be legally dismissed without regard to First Amendment concerns, such as when an assistant prosecutor decides to run against his boss, the elected prosecutor.

But in its opinion in Nichols v. Dancer, the 9th Circuit court concluded that the doctrine does not apply in this case.

"Because Nichols was terminated for a perceived lack of personal loyalty, rather than political loyalty, we conclude that the patronage-dismissal doctrine does not apply to her termination," the court said.

The 9th Circuit ordered the district court to re-examine Nichols' suit under cases governing when speech and association by public employees merit First Amendment protection.

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