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Brandon v. Maricopa County

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

February 23, 2017

Maria Brandon, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Maricopa County; Sandra Wilson; Rocky Armfield; Paul Wilson; Chris Armfield, Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued and Submitted October 20, 2016 San Francisco, California

         Appeal from the United States District Court Nos. 2:12-cv-00788-FJM 2:13-cv-01148-FJM for the District of Arizona Frederick J. Martone, Senior District Judge, Presiding

          Kimberly A. Demarchi (argued) and Jared L. Sutton, Lewis Roca Rothgerber LLP, Phoenix, Arizona; Michele M. Iafrate, Iafrate & Associates, Phoenix, Arizona; for Defendants-Appellants.

          Larry J. Cohen (argued), Cohen Law Firm, Phoenix, Arizona, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before: Carlos T. Bea and Sandra S. Ikuta, Circuit Judges, and Jane A. Restani, [*] International Trade Judge.

         SUMMARY[**]

         Civil Rights

         The panel reversed the district court's judgment in favor of plaintiff following jury verdicts and vacated the attorneys' fee award in plaintiff's action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law alleging she was fired from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in retaliation for a statement she made to a local newspaper regarding a case she handled for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department.

         The panel held that no reasonable jury could conclude that County risk management officials improperly interfered with plaintiff's employment contract when they requested reassignment of her risk management cases to other lawyers after she made statements to the newspaper. Accordingly, the panel reversed the jury's verdict against the defendant officials on the state law tortious interference with contract claim because, as a matter of law, defendants' conduct was not improper.

         The panel held that with the legally defined scope of an attorney's duties in mind, it was obvious that plaintiff's comments to the newspaper could not constitute constitutionally protected citizen speech under the principles from Dahlia v. Rodriguez, 735 F.3d 1060, 1074-76 (9th Cir. 2013). Accordingly, the panel reversed the jury's First Amendment retaliation verdict.

         Because the panel remanded for the district court to enter judgment for defendants, there were no successful claims that could serve as the basis for a fee award. As such, the panel held that the district court's fee award must be vacated.

          OPINION

          BEA, Circuit Judge.

         Appellee Maria Brandon worked for many years as a civil litigation attorney for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office (MCAO), and later (briefly) as a direct employee of Maricopa County, defending the county and related entities in civil lawsuits, before again returning to her previous employment at the MCAO. During her time as a direct employee of the county she received a call at her office from a newspaper reporter inquiring about a case she was handling for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department. One of her comments to the reporter about the case was later published in an article in that newspaper. This article suggested that the county substantially increased settlement offers to avoid having key county officials testify.

         After Brandon returned to the MCAO, county officials responsible for overseeing risk management and civil lawsuits against the county thought her conduct in talking about the case mentioned was unprofessional for a lawyer representing the county. In light of what they considered were justifiable misgivings regarding Brandon's judgment, these officials requested that Brandon not be assigned further cases in which the county was a party and which involved risk management. Brandon was later terminated from employment with the MCAO. She filed a lawsuit against the county and certain county officials. A jury found for Brandon and against Maricopa County on her claim that she had been fired in retaliation for her exercise of First Amendment rights in speaking to the ...


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