COLUMBIA, SC — A former federal housing whistleblower has lost his lawsuit that accused Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin of striking back at him for raising questions about the finances of a north Columbia development in which Benjamin had invested.
Benjamin is entitled to qualified immunity because whistleblower Peter Rowe made his allegations about Village at Rivers Edge as an employee, not a private citizen, federal Judge Joe Anderson said.
Though courts have not settled the extent to which public employees have First Amendment protection for their criticisms based on their professional duties, ... the court finds that it was not clearly established that Rowe was engaging in constitutionally protected activity at the time of the statements at issue, Anderson wrote in a 12-page Oct. 26 order.
Of course, we feel like the judges decision to dismiss was appropriate and were pleased with it, Benjamin said in a statement Monday. This has been an unfortunate distraction and were glad to move forward.
Qualified immunity protects public officials from civil liability unless they violate clearly established laws or constitutional rights.
If its not clear, then you decide in favor of the defendant (Benjamin), Rowes attorney, Ben Mabry, saidMonday. It does not mean it didnt happen.
Rowe was HUDs director of community planning and development from December 2010 until he was fired in November 2011.
Though Anderson did not bar Rowe from filing another claim, Mabry said no other legal action is planned.
In his May 4 suit, Rowe contended that Benjamin and Rowes bosses at the Columbia office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development conspired to fire him because Rowe was complaining about a pattern of what he alleges was misuse of federal housing funds.
Anderson cited a controlling U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 2006. The justices held that if the employee speech at issue is made as part of the employees job, the employee is not speaking as a citizen and the speech is not protected ... the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.
The high court held that employers need a significant degree of control over their employees words and actions; without it, there would be little chance for the efficient provision of public services.
Rowe also alleged civil conspiracy. That claim was thrown out last summer by agreement of all parties, according to the order. That complaint cannot be filed again.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.